The House That Jack Built. 2018. Directed & Written by Lars von Trier.
Starring Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies, Jack McKenzie, & David Bailie.
Zentropa Entertainment/Copenhagen Film Fund
Unrated. 152 minutes.
What did people expect when they heard Lars von Trier was making a film about a serial killer? Were they anticipating subtlety? Even when the Danish terror is making a subtle statement he’s not being entirely subtle. Regardless of what you may have thought about von Trier’s previous films, you might feel differently about The House That Jack Built— that is, if you’re able to divorce yourself from hard reality and stray into the realm of pure allegory.
This is a serial killer film in so much as that’s the particular vehicle von Trier chose to carry his intended discussion/message(s). Because of the filmmaker’s relationship with onscreen violence, and especially fictional violence against women, a serial killer story is the perfect way for him to convey his feelings about his own work, paralleling himself with his protagonist/antagonist Jack (played brilliantly by Matt Dillon).
What emerges is a profound examination of how an artist works, how an artist deals with failure, and also how people respond to horror or other violence in art. This isn’t a plot that necessarily works towards concrete conclusion. It’s a stop along the way in the journey of von Trier’s career as he grapples with himself and what his art ultimately means, if anything at all.
From the get-go, this article assumes everything in The House That Jack Built is allegorical. Nothing that happens is real. Jack, as well as his victims, are all symbolic. If you can’t subscribe to this notion, it’s pointless to continue. Otherwise, it all starts with the opening, dark moments when the sound of splashing water’s heard nearby. Soon we hear Jack and his buddy Virgil (Bruno Ganz).
Although it only becomes clear later, the pair are heading into the Underworld. The label Katabasis is used for this section, which in Ancient Greek means ‘down’ and refers to a descent. Like in Greek literature, von Trier’s Katabasis here is a descent into the underworld, and often such descents, for the Greeks, meant a search for understanding or knowledge. The poet Virgil accompanies Dante on his journey through Hell towards Paradise in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Divine Comedy (separated into three sections: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso).
Once we know this later, we can return to the beginning, and the sound of water is reminiscent of a scene early in Inferno when the author and the poet first come together, and Dante describes Virgil using watery imagery:
“And art thou then that Virgil, that well-spring,
From which such copious floods of eloquence
— Inferno, Canto I (lines 75-77)
When von Trier invokes Dante and Virgil in his screenplay it immediately transforms the narrative into an allegory about art. Another interesting set of references by the director-writer concerns the wide chasm of opinion when it comes to art. First, he refers to Canadian visionary pianist Glenn Gould – Virgil calls him a “ridiculous man” – whose style of playing is unforgettable, and whose interpretations of classical pieces inspire both reverence and eye rolls. Later, he refers to Bob Dylan by having Jack reenact the promotional clip/early music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (from the album Bringing It All Back Home), famous for its use of cue cards with Dylan’s lyrics. Both musicians represent artists who don’t neatly fit into boxes. Gould’s humming, fidgety performances and studio recordings still makes classical snobs twitch, and Dylan’s use of electric guitar on half of Bringing It All Back Home alienated him from folk music purists who previously worshipped at his feet. The inclusion of Gould, and shots of Jack smirking in an alley as he holds up cue cards referencing everything from William Blake to his OCD, might feel excessively pretentious on von Trier’s part initially. Instead these musicians help the film’s artistic themes evolve beyond just the murder Jack commits as creative output.
Make no mistake: murder’s what The House That Jack Built is all about! Death and violence have been a large part of von Trier’s work as a filmmaker. This film is his confrontation of the relationship between violence and art, as well as his own relationship with artistic violence. Many people have a problem with violent art, though many snobs are just as willing to ignore the violence of classical art as they are to chastise modern artists for their use of violence. Violent acts are a part of life, and to deny them is to deny reality— if contrary forces (i.e. good & evil) didn’t exist, the world wouldn’t move forward, either on a macro or micro level.
Not only that, anything can be art if it’s done through performance, whether you’re putting a brush to canvas or shooting actors on a film set or ritualistically murdering victims. In the documentary Kemper on Kemper, FBI criminal profiler John Douglas says, in regards to attempting to understand serial killers like Ed Kemper: “To understand the artist, you must look at the artwork.”
“Good is the Passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”
— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
One of von Trier’s most honest moments of self-reflection is tied to Mr. Sophistication— the name Jack uses as his serial killer moniker. Like the Zodiac, the Son of Sam, and Jack the Ripper before them, von Trier’s Jack desires fame and gives himself a name for the news media to use, not unlike the creation of a name for a musician or an actor, many of whom change their names for the stage (I’m looking at you, Caryn Johnson). The artist, like the serial killer, balances a desire for fame with the passion for their work. A serial killer puts himself at risk for fame, leaving behind a signature, as does a director: if the only concern is fame, if the quest for notoriety takes over, then art suffers or is lost entirely.
The use of David Bowie’s song “Fame” is a perfect companion to the Mr. Sophistication crime scene photo. (A happy accident for von Trier the liner notes for Bowie’s album Outside feature a short story titled “The diary of Nathan Adler or the art-ritual murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle” that envisions a dystopian future where Art Crime has become a new underground fad, involving the artistic use of murder and mutilated bodies.)
The second most honest moment, and the most misunderstood, is the scene with Jack and his casual girlfriend, whom he refers to as Simple (Riley Keough). To some, this scene feels like von Trier isn’t reflecting on the violence against women in his films but rather lamenting the state of ‘men’s rights.’ This is actually a tongue-in-cheek moment where the director-writer satirises male gender blindness. Jack whines about how hard it is being a man as he’s cutting off Simple’s breasts, juxtaposing figurative emotional violence he and other oblivious men feel is directed towards them by women with the very real corporeal violence women face from men. This calls to mind Margaret Atwood pointing out the disparity of what men feel threatened by v. what women feel threatened by when she noted how men are afraid women will laugh at them while women are afraid men will kill them. Jack is a man, like von Trier previously, who’s never considered the reality of the damage they’re doing right in front of their eyes, blinded by hubris and passion, treating women as expendable in the journey of their art.
This sense of being expendable to a man’s art(/worldview) is encompassed by the image of Jack’s house of bodies. Although Jack struggles to build a literal house, he’s done a fine job piecing together a home out of the corpses of his victims. Here, the “control and composition of the mise–en–scene” shifts “from the director (as behind–the–scenes narrator) to the murderer (as diegetic set designer)” (Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror). In this composition of bodies, von Trier and Jack become one and the same.
The bodies themselves in Jack’s art parallel with the actors in von Trier’s films. Particularly when we consider Björk calling the Danish director out for his abusive methods on-set, we see how women actors become an extension of the film set, expendable pieces to von Trier, whose mental manipulation in the name of art becomes a significant form of violence. A serial killer only acknowledges their work, not the material which made it possible (their victims). A director who doesn’t treat their actors/actresses with respect, like a disembodied talent floating in the ether, becomes akin to the murderer.
“The material didn’t do what I wanted it to do.”
As the audience, are we von Trier’s victims? His witnesses? Or, are we accomplices to his ‘crimes’? Are we all of the above? The early scene featuring Jack’s first victim (played fantastically by our queen, Uma Thurman) suggests at least SOME who walk into a theatre to screen the director’s film(s) are definitely his victims. Again, this is a misunderstood scene where some take Uma’s victim as ‘begging for it’ through the eyes of Jack/von Trier. This victim isn’t representative of women— for those in back the row: THIS FILM IS ALLEGORY. This victim represents the uptight bourgeois audiences who willingly get into the van with von Trier – “Oops, that was a mistake!” – watch his films, then turn up their nose as if they were expecting something different from the man who made stuff like Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots, Breaking the Waves, Antichrist, Nymphomaniac, and Dogville.
There’s too much to unpack in a single article— the inclusion of Blake’s “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” and the influence of his text The Marriage of Heaven and Hell on the screenplay warrants a whole essay on its own, just as the use of Dante’s Inferno could fill a PhD dissertation (Jack’s eating of a pear while staring into the locked freezer room is an image of Dante’s Hell itself: shaped similarly to an upside down pear, like how Jack holds the fruit while eating it). The House That Jack Built won’t please everybody. For fans of von Trier, as well as lovers of horror who feel it’s a discredited genre, this film is a masterpiece. It’s an ambitious, long, and difficult piece of work, but one that’s unlike any other in recent memory. This is a great piece of horror if you take it at face value, and a stunning, major work of art once you dig below the nasty surface.