The House that Jack Built: Dazzlingly Depraved

Where to begin with The House that Jack Built?

If you had told me this time last year that Lars Von Trier’s next film would make it onto my top 10 list, I’d have assumed you were joking, but here we are.

In this intricate work of impossible cinematic architecture – part biography, part essay, part meta-provocation, and part hilarious, disturbing serial killer yarn – nothing, and everything, is exactly how it seems. Every image is layered with meaning – some are ridiculous (intentionally so), others thought-provoking, but all teeter thrillingly on the edge of collapse.

Matt Dillon gives the performance of his lifetime as Jack, a sociopathic serial killer in 1980’s (?) Washington, who recites a compendium of his greatest hits (if you will) to Bruno Ganz’s offscreen Verge. In five ‘incidents’, arranged over a period of 12 years, we’re taken from his humble beginnings to excessive end and everything in between.

Jack contemplates his actions…

First and foremost, this is an investigation into Lars Von Trier. His philosophy, filmography, and controversial public life are all harshly interpreted within a thesis that seems to suggest The House that Jack Built is the final despicable act that will condemn him to eternal damnation. Lars is Jack – as if you needed someone else to tell you that. A bold move, to be sure, but aside from Lars’ self-exploration, the nature of art and the personality of a creator are also canvassed as discussion points.

The predator/prey metaphor for the artist and subject, encapsulated here by analogy to Blake, may not be the most original of observations, but through it Von Trier engages in a plethora of discussions ranging from the structure of cathedrals, to cubism, to proper hunting technique and the differences between engineers and architects. Most of these make uncomfortable analogies to murder and atrocity, the linkage of which becomes most distasteful when Jack compares genocide to art. The audience nervously laugh it off – oh, Lars – but they forget that there’s something genuinely interesting and provocative here. Like the moment Damien Hirst described 9/11 as a “visually stunning” artwork and argued the event had inexorably changed the visual language of humanity, Jack’s appraisal of mass-murder as ‘art’ may be missing empathetic nuance, but he’s right to note that such a seismic event in human history completely changed our emotional and visual landscapes.

He’s also right to argue against Verge’s assertion that art is a release valve for the unspeakable repressed horrors of a human soul by demonstrating that the most horrific things have already been perpetrated by humans. What could a person think up that could be worse than the systematic torture and genocide of six million people? As the Museum of Photography in Berlin prepares to comb the archives of Leni Riefenstahl, it’s right for us to ask about the uneasy relationship between art and genuine suffering. How do we feel about the fact that many of society’s most iconic works of art (from film, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, for instance) stem directly from terrible events that we surely wish did not occur? And yet, despite this honest discussion, there’s the lingering feeling that Lars is laughing at us over his 2011 comments on Nazism that saw him declared persona non grata at Cannes for 7 years. The profound is dramatically spliced with the infantile and offensive: the difference here is that, for the first time, Von Trier isn’t hiding his terrible infant (intended) status. 

Queasily thought-provoking: Matt Dillon as Jack

Other, less-impactful or important questions raise still-interesting points. A recurring motif of ‘the darkness of the light’ in camera negatives unearths a legion of disturbing, nightmarish imagery that comes into focus towards the end of the film as particularly pertinent. And the overt diagnoses Von Trier grants Jack – we see him literally spell out his condition on Bob Dylan-esque cards – offer a compelling insight into how empathy can be the on-off switch between civility and chaos. Are Jack’s neurons linking art and destruction chiefly because he cannot understand human suffering? Is Von Trier trying to tell us that great film-makers are sociopaths? 

Arguably, a lot of this philosophising is divorced from Jack’s tale, and there are definite moments where pretentiousness and surface-level ignorance of artistic/ideological concepts derail Von Trier’s point – I almost shouted at the screen in despair when the director included a reel of shots from his own oeuvre as examples of meaningful art. But one of the most fascinating parts of this train-crash-in-slow-motion is the way in which it’s as flawed as its protagonist and creator (being, of course, one and the same).

What’s really remarkable is that, for the first time in his career, Lars has made all this fascinating discourse truly entertaining. The House that Jack Built, for all its academic querying, could just as well be viewed as a comedic litmus test for its audience – a Funny Games without Haneke’s moral berating. The overall tone of the film remains the same: tongue-in-cheek, a near constant stream of jokes, even as the storyline slowly descends into hell. In other words, it’s much easier to laugh at Jack’s attempts to get rid of irritating hitchhiker ‘Lady 1’; than to do so when he’s savagely butchering a vulnerable woman, whilst repeatedly insulting her intelligence. The joke:time ratio, however, remains the same. Throughout my screening there was constant laughter, albeit that diminished as time went on. This is a director at the peak of his powers challenging us; daring us to laugh in the face of atrocity, and asking why – asking what it is about these situations that are in any way funny.

And, on top of this, the film is genuinely unsettling. I don’t want to spoil anything (like so many other reviews have done), but there are moments involving photographs, taxidermy, and children (‘The most sensitive subject of all!’ exclaims Verge in knowing exasperation) that sent chills down my spine and burned themselves into my retinas. Enough people have told you this film is ‘disgusting’ or ‘deplorable’ by now for me to have the liberty of avoiding the point, but if you’re squeamish, avoid this splatterfest at all costs. 

Challenging and satisfying… 

It’s also interesting to note that the further Lars moves away from Dogme 95, the more satisfying and beautiful his films are. DoP Manuel Alberto Claro does an absolutely wonderful job of creating a clean, crisp, very ‘Washington’ (or is that Scandinavia *wink wink*) aesthetic. Minimalist whites and lime greens create a light, elemental feel to the film that’s punctured by the deep crimson of Jack’s van and the blood of his victims. Night-time scenes have a nervy, fluorescent energy amplified by thrillingly present camera noise that shatters the screen into a Georges Seurat pointillist painting straight from the abyss.

The up-close-and-personal handheld shakycam style, combined with remarkable fast-panning (and even at one point rapidly spinning) camera movements and swift cutting make The House that Jack Built both invigoratingly alive and supremely nauseating –one imagines this is the point. As Von Trier’s lens revolves around a walk-in freezer filled with grotesque, taxidermized corpses, I genuinely began to feel quite ill. In its final 20 minutes, the film switches gears to become something else entirely. A quasi-horror journey into darkness (or light, at this point it doesn’t matter), Verge and Jack’s true scenario conjures grand images that rival the disgusting psychedelia of Hannibal. As an experimental chiller, the slow-motion decay is both more affecting and more effective than Antichrist, evading crass sensationalism for something darker and altogether nastier.

Upon seeing The House that Jack Built, Robbie Collin compared it to a suicide note. Although I don’t think there’s much to suggest that Lars Von Trier is going to kill himself, he clearly doesn’t think too highly of humanity (including himself). But from his nihilistic outlook comes such a richly textured tapestry of ideas and images that one can’t help but sit in enraptured awe. Perhaps that’s the point: if art comes from destruction and perversion, The House that Jack Built is Lars Von Trier’s masterpiece.


James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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