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The House That Jack Built review – a killer with room for improvement


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In 2011, I interviewed Lars von Trier at his Zentropa offices in Denmark. I told him how much I liked Anti-Christ and Melancholia, while also confessing that I absolutely hated The Idiots. “That’s OK,” he replied, “as long as you really hated it!” I remembered that comment when reading Von Trier’s response to the walkouts that greeted The House That Jack Built when it premiered at Cannes in May. Asked how he felt about the reaction to his impressively grotesque latest, he deadpanned: “I’m not sure if they hated it enough.”

It’s easy to bridle at Von Trier’s films, particularly when they feature moments of New York Ripper-style gore, button-pushing provocations (“Children, the most sensitive subject of all!” says one character), duckling mutilation (nb: no animals were harmed), and grotesque human sculptures that resemble the shock-art of the Chapman brothers. But the prevailing atmosphere of The House That Jack Built is one of sardonic, self-reflexive disdain. Von Trier has suggested that this may be his final film, and you can certainly read it as a sort of last will and testament, with an audaciously ridiculous metaphysical punchline.

"Jack seems more interested in the process of cleaning up afterwards"

In Nymphomaniac, a woman recounted her self-proclaimed sexual wickedness to an apparently sympathetic man, proudly demanding damnation. Here, Matt Dillon’s titular serial killer drones on to his initially unseen companion Verge (Bruno Ganz), who warns him not to “believe you’re going to tell me something I haven’t heard before”. As the two journey into darkness, Jack recounts five randomly defining “incidents” from his life.

In the first, Uma Thurman plays an unnamed stranded driver who falls foul of a broken jack (pun surely intended) after breaking down on a remote road. She tells Jack he looks like a serial killer, and she’s right; from the Dennis Nilsen glasses to the killing-for-company taxidermy tendencies, he’s an almost parodic textbook creep. Next, we have the strangling of a middle-aged woman (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), the hunting of a mother (Sofie Gråbøl) and her kids, and the butchery of a woman whom Jack calls “Simple” (Riley Keough). It all sounds very perfunctory, and that’s largely how it’s played – as distanced and disconnected as the vague 1970s/80s setting.

Intercut with the murders, we see footage of the pianist Glenn Gould (“he represents art”), and hear Jack expound at length about engineering versus architecture. For years, he’s been designing, building, destroying and then rebuilding a house that never meets his OCD expectations. The murders are a byproduct of these compulsive tendencies, and Jack seems more interested in the process of cleaning up afterwards, although a scene in which he can’t leave the house of a victim for fear that he missed a spot raises grim chuckles, of which there are several. Make no mistake, like Dante’s depiction of the inferno, The House That Jack Built is a comedy, albeit far from divine.

From the bells ringing in heaven at the end of Breaking the Waves to a tableau-vivant evocation of Eugène Delacroix’s La Barque de Dante (aka Dante and Virgil in Hell) here, Von Trier’s films have long occupied an explicitly theological universe. Just how far his tongue is in his cheek is debatable. “I’m not a man of faith,” says Jack, before stating that such a declaration is “totally crazy, considering our present situation”. There’s also a lengthy discussion of William Blake’s tiger/lamb dichotomy (apparently a key element of collaborator Jenle Hallund’s original idea), and an eerie discussion of the “dark light” of negative photographic images.

“You are constantly trying to manipulate me,” says Verge, sounding like one of Von Trier’s critics. No wonder a montage of the horrors of the world features fleeting clips from Von Trier’s back catalogue, as if the director wants us to read Jack’s mission statement as his own; the ramblings of a verbose, self-pitying psychopath with dreary intellectual pretensions. It’s particularly perverse that, after years making movies such as Dancer in the Dark, which empathetically explored the suffering of women, Von Trier chose this #MeToo moment to make a film seen solely from the solipsistic perspective of “an evil man”.

With its explicit acknowledgement of Trump-era chauvinism (Maga-style red caps and “why is it always the man’s fault” whingeing), this sporadically arresting slice of grand guignol takes pointed swipes at misogyny while occasionally seeming to wallow in it. Perhaps its greatest sin is one of bad timing. As always with Von Trier, we can only guess whether that sin is intentional or ironic.
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