Wednesday 12 December 2018

The House that Jack Built (Denmark/France/Germany/Sweden 2018: Dir Lars von Trier)

It starts with a conversation. A conversation between Jack (no surname) and Virge aka Virgil, author of 'The Aeniad.' Virgil is Jack's confessor, psychiatrist, and half of their talkative double act for the duration of Lars von Trier's latest cinematic polariser.

Jack (Matt Dillon) is a serial killer, who has murdered around 60 people, a mixture of men, women and children, although in The House that Jack Built he presents us with five 'randomly chosen' case studies mainly focusing on his female victims; the stories broadly echo the first five books of Virgil's major work, emitting a whiff of classicism which hangs around the whole movie. Jack is the wandering Aeneas of Virgil's epic poem, and Virgil (Bruno Ganz) the host and guide.

The case studies include Lady 1 (Uma Thurman), who Jack picks up at the roadside - her car has a flat tyre - and who gently needles him for a long time about whether he might be a killer and whether she is putting herself in danger travelling with him. Did she bring this on herself or is there a sense of the fates operating? Lady 2's story aligns with Book Two of The Aeniad - the Trojan Horse. The third episode features Sofie Gråbøl who it is assumed may have been a partner and with whom he was the father of two boys (although nothing should be judged at face value). The victim with whom he spends the longest time is Simple (Riley Keogh), a woman not given a 'Lady' label but a derogatory nickname; it's a terrible relationship, a depressingly ill (or perhaps un) matched power battle which allows Jack to unravel and possibly expose his true self for the first time - it also concludes shockingly.

This is the 'house' that Jack builds for himself, and as the film progresses over its 12 year span it's a building that threatens to crush him, hence the need to confess (although of course his confessor is as illusory as the classical muses which haunt his conscience).

Jack's testimony goes to great pains to inform the audience of the link between his 'work' and high art. Jack is an architect by trade, but he's also an engineer, although he feels that he was always destined for 'something greater' than both. It's a classical depiction of the serial killer; scenes from his childhood show the inevitable animal cruelty (don't worry - it's all done with edits and animatronics) and an obsession with the dark. The frequent references to troubled geniuses like Glenn Gould, William Blake and even Albert Speer illustrate his aspirations, although von Trier adds a full moon backdrop on one occasion to mark the 'constructedness' of his creation and, in a recurrent scene, has an insouciant Jack showing the audience a set of self describing cue cards, indebted to Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' promotional film.

While Jack is a man of some intelligence, and fits the profile of the psychopath by having an elevated view of his own talents, he's decidedly not a smooth talking killer. In reality he's a sweaty, OCD obsessed loner whose patter to gain entry to people's houses and lives is awkward and under-rehearsed, and whose fits of pique and operational slovenliness undermine his own perceptions of himself. The thin line between horror and humour is balanced perfectly here, although of course von Trier has to push that line a little further - a scene where he arranges his victims, preserved in his deep freeze, in tableaux mortes, and a long sequence where he temporarily disposes of a body while dealing with the police, are farcical and overblown.

And as with most serial killers, Jack's confidence is his undoing. He begins leaving photographs signed as 'Mr Sophistication,' baiting the police, Jack the Ripper style. And as his methods become sloppier, the cops eventually close the ring on his activities; Jack is going down. All the way down to Katarbasis - a literal descent to the underworld, prefaced by his appearance in a mock tableau of Eugène Delacroix's painting La Barque de Dante or 'Dante and Virgil in Hell.'

Lars von Trier is arguably the best Situationist director of his generation. He relishes the concept of 'play' and his films, as the critic Peter Bradhsaw put it in a review of 2011's Melancholia, demonstrate a genius "for making the audience's discomfiture part of the show itself." Of course von Trier is never far from the subjects of his films - he can be glimpsed as the disability faking Stoffer in 1998's The Idiots, switching his act on and off with practised immediacy, and the whole of Melancholia has been regarded as a response to his own bi-polarity. Jack's pleas for understanding in the face of his hideous track record ("Why is it always the man's fault?") could be von Trier's own - and the 'hand in gloveness' of Jack and the director reach their apotheosis where the director uses excerpts from his own movie back catalogue in the film to demonstrate...well, who knows?  It's a wild ride, that's for sure, and a decidedly unsavoury film, but I defy anyone to deny the craft and, yes, wit, on display in The House that Jack Built.

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