Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Within A Forest Dark - Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built

“Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they're expressed instead through our art. I don't agree. I believe Heaven and Hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to Heaven and the body to Hell." -- Jack (Matt Dillon)

"Jack has a weak point for fame also, and so do I. I’m not proud of it." -- Lars von Trier

“I Am Jack's Complete Lack of Surprise.” -- Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club)

Jack (Matt Dillon) is an architect. Or maybe Jack is an engineer. Jack definitely considers himself an artist. The medium for Jack’s art is the human body and the manifold horrors that can be inflicted upon it. Because Jack is a serial killer.

Utilising the same narrative device that he employed in Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier presents The House That Jack Built as a series of episodic vignettes. A dark mirror to Charlotte Gainsbourg’s recollections of sexual experiences in Nymphomaniac, this is an unflinching catalogue of death. A grotesque picaresque. Part confessional, part testament, part reverie, Jack regales Verge (Bruno Ganz) with the details of five incidents that take place over a period of twelve years.

Jack may be an unreliable narrator. But then, so is Lars.

“I Am Jack's Smirking Revenge.”

Interspersed with repeated refrains of David Bowie's "Fame" and Glenn Gould seated at his piano, Jack’s revelations are by turns self-aggrandising and self-flagellating. Sometimes both at the same time. He gives himself the grandiose pseudonym Mr. Sophistication, and arranges his victims in hideous tableaux morte to capture moments with negative photography. Provocative and repellent, it occasionally feels like von Trier is whispering in my ear “why are you still watching this?” and laughing at his little incitements. (This is as good a time as any to note that the film isn’t actually funny, despite the intermittent bursts of laughter from the audience in the screening that I attended).

As the film progresses, the line between Jack and Lars becomes increasingly blurry. Jack (and Lars) suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His art distracts him from his neuroses, and he exorcises his demons through his work. I don’t even know if I’m talking about Jack or Lars von Trier anymore..

“I Am Jack's Medulla Oblongata.”

The House That Jack Built also grows more contemplative as it goes on. We get a better sense of Jack’s narcissism and egotism. He is utterly self-absorbed, and we’re trapped in the stifling confines of his warped worldview. There are excuses and justifications. He flaunts his toxic masculinity and male entitlement and his ability to act with impunity. He indulges in discursive digressions on architecture and “the noble rot” of fermenting grapes, and self-importantly places himself in a continuum of human horror and atrocities.

It would be a stretch to say that I enjoyed watching The House That Jack Built, but I’ve certainly enjoyed turning it over in my head in the days since. It’s a confident and impressive piece of work. The early movements of the film are reminiscent of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Man Bites Dog, but it’s a very different beast as we descend further towards the baroque denouement. And it is ripe with allusions: early on, Jack sports a pair of large lens Jeffrey Dahmer glasses; occasionally, Jack faces the audience wielding cue cards à la Bob Dylan's “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; and then there’s the impressive and striking recreation of Eugène Delacroix's The Barque of Dante.

“I Am Jack's Inflamed Sense of Rejection.” 

It’s surely no coincidence that Jack is von Trier’s first male protagonist since 1991’s Europa. It certainly feels like The House That Jack Built could be Lars von Trier’s swansong. With Jack as his proxy, von Trier is looking back on his oeuvre - the House that Lars built. (Sometimes, it’s a little bit too on-the-nose, especially in a montage made up of footage from von Trier’s back catalogue. Subtle it ain’t.) But I hope this isn’t the last room on von Trier’s house. There’s life in the old provocateur yet.

The House That Jack Built is in cinemas and on demand in the UK from Friday 14th December 2018, with nationwide previews that include a pre-recorded Lars von Trier Q&A on Wednesday 12th December 2018

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