Think of the worst film ever made. There’s The Room, of course, an oddity which is incomprehensible but nevertheless endearing; Plan 9 From Outer Space, the ‘50s sci-fi that’s rife with production blunders; while Jack & Jill remains the most (un)successful film in the history of the Razzies. Give the Sandler twins a few more years, and you can say that all of these films are safely tucked under the cult cinema tutelage – bad, yes, but harmlessly so.
The House That Jack Built, the latest work from notorious ‘provocateur’ Lars von Trier, is abhorrent filmmaking of the worst variety: less so-bad-it’s good than it is mediocre to the point of cultural danger. Constructed out of hatred, it espouses ideological poison – forcing its viewer to not only suffer through explicit gender violence, but to laugh along with it. When it’s not being excessively macabre, it’s indulging in predictably contrived musings on the function of idols, the nature of art and whether there are limits in its creation. The House That Jack Built is proof that there are.
Early on, we are addressed by Jack (Matt Dillon), a serial killer who tells us: “I will tentatively divide my tale into 5 random incidents”. They’re not quite random, as they all seem to involve some deliberately irritating and nameless woman – not characters but things, tools of vexation and objects of abuse. Lady #1 (Uma Thurman) is beaten to death with a wrench, her corpse dragged through the street leaving a trail of blood. A fortunately-timed rain shower washes the evidence away, prompting Jack to quip: “I felt I had a higher protecting”. What sort of system, I wonder, would allow this? We can only speculate, but it might resemble the kind that facilitates, and celebrates, the release of a new Lars von Trier film.
Jack recounts these heinous acts to ‘Verge’ (Bruno Ganz), otherwise known as Virgil, the Roman poet, who coincidentally guided Dante to hell in his Divine Comedy. Subtle, right? His chief purpose, it seems, is to be the audience’s stand-in. If von Trier is Jack, we are Verge – calling out this storyteller for any narrative flaws and cliché. Recognising this, however, does not absolve you for doing so. Acknowledgement is not an excuse for laziness, so while von Trier takes gleeful pride in predicting our gripes, this self-critique just feels like a debilitatingly meta hoax.
Verge is a frustrating device for another reason: though we’re incessantly told about Jack’s superintelligence, what we witness is anything but. This serial killer is ridiculously fortunate to never get caught – but the question of why Jack is able to get away with these acts, while pertinent, is never explored. Instead, Verge repeatedly laments, “oh Jack… you really are an evil man” – just in case all the child mutilation hasn’t spelt that out.
The leering camera work is deeply uncomfortable, mostly because it affirms that the only point-of-view we are allowed to enter is Jack’s – it belongs exclusively to von Trier, the chortling auteur. The director revels in making imbeciles of women; not humankind, but the female body. Jack’s brutal acts are apparently justified by virtue of how irritating his victims are. From a filmmaker who has previously described his approach with actors as like “a chef with a piece of meat”, the amusement with which he sculpts these bodies into gross, quite literal caricatures is less than surprising.
‘Art’ like this needs to be separated from its creator if it’s going to be excused. Such a moral task is difficult, however, when dealing with a director who has made a career out of lining his films with an inciteful personal commentary. It’s become part of his artistic brand, and von Trier knows full well: while Jack muses about a higher potential for art, the director splices in footage from his previous films like Antichrist and Melancholia. It’s a goading arrogance that few artists could get away with, and von Trier is certainly not one of them.
The line, “Women are always the victims, right? Men are born guilty”, which seeks to comically exploit the prevailing sentiments from the last 14 months, is ill-advised – but it’s also a deeply irresponsible contribution from a man who himself carries allegations of sexual harassment. In October 2017, Björk published a Facebook post in which she accused von Trier of sexual harassment while they were filming Dancer in the Dark. Nicole Kidman, who worked with von Trier on Dogville, has spoken of the director getting drunk and abusive towards her, and often took his clothes off on set.
Whether a separation of art from artist is possible, let alone necessary, is a discussion that has still not quite reached a conclusion. When that artist insists on profiting – financially and artistically – from these prescient and very real concerns, however, I find it difficult to excuse. It’s a deeply entitled, psychotic and self-pitying cry for help that I frankly don’t have time for.
It’s become glaringly obvious that von Trier neither needs nor wants glowing reviews, and he’s certainly not got one here. Much like a maggot to rotting flesh, the director feeds off controversy: a mass walk-out at Cannes, for example, is the perfect PR move in the current climate. Outrage has become the natural currency in a media culture that cashes in on moral transgressions.
Great art is apparently born out of great suffering; but if this is what’s become necessary, if I’m meant to laugh at the abuse of female bodies and the sight of children being gunned down for sport, I refuse to participate.
Dir: Lars von Trier
Scr: Lars von Trier
Cast: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Riley Keough, Sofie Gråbøl
DOP: Manuel Alberto Claro
Music: Víctor Reyes
Country: Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden
Runtime: 155 minutes.
The House That Jack Built is in UK cinemas from December 14th.