Failed architect, engineer and vicious murderer Jack narrates the details of some of his most elaborately orchestrated crimes, each of them a towering piece of art that defines his life’s work as a serial killer for twelve years.
- Jack: Matt Dillon
- Verge: Bruno Ganz
- Lady 1: Uma Thurman
- Lady 2: Siobhan Fallon Hogan
- Lady 3: Sofie Gråbøl
- Simple: Riley Keough
- Al: Jeremy Davies
- Sonny: Jack McKenzie
- Glenn: Mathias Hjelm
- Ed – Police Officer 2: Ed Speleers
- Young Jack: Emil Tholstrup
- Female Student: Marijana Janković
- Little Old Lady: Carina Skenhede
- Grumpy: Rocco Day
- George: Cohen Day
- Police Officer 4: Robert Jezek
- Military Man: Osy Ikhile
- Man 1: Christian Arnold
- Man 2: Yoo Ji-tae
- Man 3: Johannes Bah Kuhnke
- Man 4: Jerker Fahlström
- S. P.: David Bailie
- Rob: Robert G. Slade
- Scythe Man, Elysian Fields: Vasilije Mujka
- Self (archive footage) (uncredited): Glenn Gould
- Self (archive footage) (uncredited): Adolf Hitler
- Self (archive footage) (uncredited): Idi Amin
- Self (archive footage) (uncredited): Benito Mussolini
- Thanks: Willem Dafoe
- Story: Lars von Trier
- Thanks: Jean-Marc Barr
- Thanks: Udo Kier
- Thanks: Jens Albinus
- Executive Producer: Peter Aalbæk Jensen
- Lead Editor: Molly Malene Stensgaard
- Casting: Avy Kaufman
- Costume Designer: Manon Rasmussen
- Music Arranger: Kristian Eidnes Andersen
- Thanks: Kirsten Dunst
- Assistant Director: Anders Refn
- Thanks: Nicole Kidman
- Casting: Des Hamilton
- Thanks: Charlotte Gainsbourg
- Executive Producer: Thomas Gammeltoft
- Co-Producer: Marianne Slot
- Thanks: Kristoffer Nyholm
- Co-Producer: Bettina Brokemper
- Production Design: Simone Grau
- Director of Photography: Manuel Alberto Claro
- Executive Producer: Tomas Eskilsson
- Producer: Louise Vesth
- Co-Producer: Madeleine Ekman
- Co-Producer: Tine Grew Pfeiffer
- Sound: Víctor Reyes
- Makeup Designer: Dennis Knudsen
- Seamstress: Grith Deleuran
- Editor: Jacob Secher Schulsinger
- Executive Producer: Piv Bernth
- Makeup Artist: Astrid Weber
- Visual Effects Supervisor: Peter Hjorth
- Still Photographer: Christian Geisnæs
- Line Producer: Maj-Britt Paulmann
- Co-Producer: Jonas Bagger
- Casting Associate: Jon Goracy
- Executive Producer: Charlotte Pedersen
- Casting: Lara Manwaring
- Gaffer: Grube Venn
- Thanks: Per Kirkeby
- Line Producer: Sascha Verhey
- Co-Producer: Lizette Jonjic
- Casting Associate: Elan Jones
- Script Supervisor: Christina Braun-Bredelius
- Music Supervisor: Mikkel Maltha
- Casting Associate: Lucy Amos
- Art Direction: Cecilia Hellner
- Costumer: Emilie Boge Dresler
- Story Developer: Jenle Hallund
- Animation Director: Dustin Grella
- Executive Producer: Leonid Ogaryov
- First Assistant Camera: Julia Baumann
- Post Production Supervisor: Cecilie Rui
- Digital Imaging Technician: Asker Frølund Andersen
- Steadicam Operator: Anders Holck Petersen
- Assistant Editor: Kristian Hansen
- Extras Casting: Fredrik Fornänger
- Thanks: Antonia Pollak
- Researcher: Leslie Ming
- Location Manager: Christoffer Harding
- Intern: Fredrik Johansson
- Technical Supervisor: Simon Lytting
- Seamstress: Lone Hermann
- Seamstress: Frida Fredriksson
- Phantom Operator: Rasmus Wittrup
- Digital Imaging Technician: Ricard Schmidt
- First Assistant Camera: Christian Helskov Nielsen
- Drone Operator: Tao Ahler
- Best Boy Grip: Matthias Bäumer
- LachieD: Another film by Lars von Trier done very much in the flavor of his previous picture, Nymphomaniac. It is, in my opinion, much less uneven and messy, but still too undisciplined to feel fully realized and satisfying. It ranges from brilliant to dubious constantly, while Nymphomaniac, despite also containing brilliant segments, sinks to cringe-worthy more than once.
Similarly to Nymphomaniac, where our main character is exploring a central part of her personality, in the case of that film her sexuality, by confessing her history to another character, all intertwined with commentary from philosophy and religion, here it’s a murderer confessing the central part of his personality, his killer nature, to another character, all again mixed with dialogues on philosophy, art, etc. So in the style and approach the films are quite similar. Maybe even more that I would prefer, because Nymphomaniac didn’t rub well off me, as the premise took precedence over proper story development.
The story in The House That Jack Built again is told in episodic manner, here even more so with the narrative being split into separate “incidents”, and it often feels too artificial, staged, and improbable. I’m not sure how much this was premeditated and intentional. As I already mentioned, it feels too often quite implausible and ridiculous. It makes you question director’s true intentions with this approach. Is he toying with the nature of the film medium, with audience expectations, or is simply using this narrative instrument to make a statement on art and (his own) filmmaking? It’s hard to say. The approach however, has a quite potent result, which is in my opinion accidental. It tapped on that feeling of reality being stranger than fiction, and that impression of life being utterly indifferent to people doing evil things. But how the movie was executed, it makes you feel that this aspect of the film was a mere accident of the director’s approach, and not a fully realized vision. As previously noted, the script veers into absurd one too many times for this sense of reality being stranger than fiction to have a chance to establish a footing, or simply, too feel convincing and compelling. As maybe it should have been. From the technical standpoint, I’ve found the usage of shaky cam very innapropriate for the story being potrayed and rather detrimental to the enjoyability of the film. But missed opportunities in the script feel more jarring to me, to be terribly bothered with this specific directorial choice.
It is definitely a more satisfying film than Nymphomaniac, but again feels too sketchy, too undisciplined, it’s hard to embrace it. Despite being a fan of self-referential, meta filmmaking, I think this specific approach does this film a disservice. A more subtle, distanced angle, would do this story, keeping the same structure, wonders. It just so obvious that von Trier has the chops for a much more compelling film. You can sense is so many times during the course of this film, that you feel frustrated witnessing how he opts for another direction repeatedly.
Lars von Trier is a marvelous director, a talented visionary willing to tap into uncharted territories, and because of his prestige he is able to secure solid budgets for his film projects, as well as A listers probably doing the work for a discount, just to be in a Lars von Trier film. In that sense, his every new project is an exciting event for any film buff. But after these last two endeavors, I’m personally starting to lose interest. I’m simply convinced that discipline is important in art, and von Trier, at the current stage of his artistic career, chooses to blatantly disregard it, with weak results.
Worth being seen, but don’t expect to be very impressed.
- Stephen Campbell: _**Self-indulgent? Absolutely. Disturbing? Partly. Hilarious? Definitely**_
> _Jack is a part of me. But I’m not a psychopath. I’m pretty sure. I’ve been diagnosed since I was six. So I think I’m safe to be with._
– Lars von Trier; “Lars von Trier: ‘I know how to kill'” (David Jenkins); _Little White Lies_ (December 13, 2018)
Ostensibly a psychological horror/serial killer film, in reality the latest from professional provocateur Lars von Trier is more a dark comedy about the nature of art, capped off with a quite literal descent into Hell. As much an interrogation of his own dark psychology as an “up yours” to his detractors and the oft-levelled accusations of misogyny and nihilism, von Trier all but _dares_ you to be offended, whether by the violence done to a duckling, the cold-blooded murder of children, the verbal degradation of a woman, the critique of the #MeToo movement, the celebration of Albert Speer, or the mockery of American gun culture. Partially self-reflexive in nature, the film suggests a parallel between murder and artistic creation, with von Trier offering more of an _apologia_ than an apology for his oeuvre. When he’s really on his game – _Breaking the Waves_ (1996), _Dancer in the Dark_ (2000), _Dogville_ (2003), _Antichrist_ (2009), _Melancholia_ (2011) – von Trier is capable of depicting horrific violence alongside psychologically complex characters and scenes of devastating emotional veracity. _House_, which is far too long and tends towards self-indulgence, doesn’t come anywhere near those heights, and is thus more open to accusations of empty provocation, but von Trier has definitely tapped into “something” here, and, love it or hate it, you _will_ react to it.
As the film begins, we hear (but don’t see) a conversation between Jack (an emotionless Matt Dillon) and “Verge” (the always superb Bruno Ganz) as Jack attempts to defend and justify his serial killing. Choosing to discuss five random but illustrative “incidents” over a period of twelve years during the 70s and 80s, the subsequent film is divided into six sections (“1st Incident”, “2nd Incident” etc., and “Epilogue: Katabasis”). A wannabe architect whose mother forced him to be an engineer, Jack, who suffers from OCD, contends that his murders are literal works of art, and has given himself the moniker “Mr Sophistication”. And short of describing each incident, that’s about it as far as plot is concerned, although it certainly wouldn’t hurt to be at least partially familiar with the work of William Blake and the _Inferno_ book of Dante Alighieri’s _Divina Commedia_ (1320).
_The House That Jack Built_ was originally developed as a TV miniseries by von Trier and Jenle Hallund, who has a “Story By” credit on the final film. Premièring out of competition at Cannes 2018, it was the first time von Trier had been to the festival since receiving a “lifetime” ban in 2011 for making ill-judged comments about sympathising with Hitler. Not that he is saying sorry, of course; how could he be when the film extols the work of Albert Speer, and lauds the design perfection of the Stuka dive bomber. The first film in Cannes history to feature a warning on the tickets (for “_scènes violentes_”), at the much-publicised première, over one-hundred people walked out, although those that stayed gave it a ten-minute standing ovation. This kind of extreme polarisation has continued ever since; _House_ is one of those rare films whose Metacritic scores range from zero (Jessica Kiang’s hilarious rant for _The Playlist_) to 100 (Michael Roffman’s review for _Consequence of Sound_). Particularly galling to some viewers has been the scene where a young Jack (Emil Tholstrup) cuts off a duckling’s leg, places it back into the pond from which he took it, and watches it drown. PETA, however, defended the film, praising the fact that it draws attention to the link between adolescent animal abuse and adult psychopathy, and for the realistic special effects (which, it has to be said, are flawless – like many viewers, I thought the scene had been shot for real).
To begin parsing the film, one first needs to look at the character of Jack himself, specifically his lack of emotional interiority. Call it sociopathy, call it an inability to empathise, whilst there’s definitely an intellectual core (seen in the many digressions he and Verge take concerning art and the nature of the artist), Jack is emotionally dead. Although we see him practising various emotional states in the mirror, he does this so as not to stand out when in the company of others, and the only _real_ emotions we ever see from him are irritation and anger, and even they are rare. Irritation is confined mainly to the 1st Incident, where he gives a lift to a woman whose car has broken down (Uma Thurman), and gradually gets more and more vexed as she goads him – telling him he looks like a serial killer but is obviously way too much of a “_wimp_” to ever actually kill anyone. Anger is mainly seen in the 5th Incident, when, right as he is about to murder a group of men tied up in the industrial freezer he uses to store bodies, he realises he has been sold hollow-point bullets instead of full metal jackets, prompting an infuriated trip to the gun store and a hilarious berating of the owner, Al (Jeremy Davies).
However, the running joke with Jack is not his emotional barrenness; it’s his utter banality (the “_banality of evil_” personified). A frustrated architect, he’s convinced that if he hadn’t been forced to study engineering he could have been another Antoni Gaudí, Albert Speer, or Frank Lloyd Wright. In reality, however, he proves incapable of designing and building even a modest house – his grand artistic ambitions undermined by his limited abilities. Indeed, his delusions of grandeur are such that he sees himself of the same ilk as people such as Shakespeare, Mozart, Blake, and, especially, Glenn Gould. In contrast to these heightened artistic aspirations, especially in the early stages of the film, his actions are often those of a bumbling neurotic. Interestingly, however, the more he kills, the less his OCD bothers him; essentially, the more pain he inflicts on the world, the less in pain he feels.
Specifically on this point, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between Jack and von Trier himself. Von Trier, who suffers from depression and has battled alcoholism, has said in the past that his films are a kind of therapy, an attempt to work out his own inner demons. In this sense, the more films depicting pain and torment that he makes, the less in pain he feels. It’s definitely a superficial reading of the character, who is clearly not a 1:1 surrogate for the director, but it’s hard to deny the analogy of how Jack feels the need to one-up himself with each murder, becoming more and more sadistic as he goes. This, of course, has become a very common criticism of von Trier’s filmography. He has also been accused of misogyny and of exploiting the psychological (and often physical) suffering of his actors, just as Jack is obviously a misogynist who exploits the suffering of his victims. And this isn’t subtext. Rather, von Trier himself makes the connection explicit when a discussion of genocide and tyranny features a montage of scenes from his own filmography; _Forbrydelsens element_ (1984), _Medea_ (1988), _Riget_ (1994), _Breaking the Waves_ (1996), _Dogville_ (2003), _Antichrist_ (2009), _Melancholia_ (2011), and _Nymph()maniac: Vol II_ (2013). There’s even an element of self-flagellation about the whole thing, with Verge positing that “_hubris must be punished by Nemesis_” – are the criticisms von Trier has faced the Nemesis punishing his hubris?
Thematically, according to von Trier, the film
> _celebrates the idea that life is evil and soulless, which is sadly proven by the recent rise of the Homo trumpus – the rat king._
Yep, that’s a reference to Donald Trump. As with _Nymph()maniac_, the film is structured around a conversation between two people, with frequent digressions to topics often fairly tangential to the main narrative. So whilst _Nymph()maniac_ gave us treaties on fly-fishing, parallel parking, and the Fibonacci sequence, _House_ features discussions concerning viticulture, the oak tree in Buchenwald, cathedral architecture, photo negatives, and the dichotomy of predator and prey, via a rather simplistic comparative analysis of Blake’s “The Lamb” (1776) and “The Tyger” (1794). One especially interesting digression, and perhaps the most obvious instance of von Trier biting his thumb at his accusers is a monologue where Jack laments the fact that men are the _de facto_ villains of every situation. Being set in the 70s and 80s, there’s obviously no specific mention of #MeToo, but it’s obvious where the invective is aimed. Coming across like a slightly more unhinged Jordan Peterson, Jack has no time for debates concerning gender fluidity or sexual misconduct, even going so far as to suggest that women are more cooperative murder victims because they’re “_easier to work with_.” You can all-but hear Rose McGowan blowing a gasket!
Aside from the aforementioned duckling scene, by far the most disturbing scene is the 4th Incident. Here, we are introduced to Jacqueline (an excellent Riley Keough), whom Jack has been dating for a while. What is most distressing about the scene is not how Jack kills her (although it’s far and away the most graphic death in the film), but what precedes her murder. After making an incredibly kind and thoughtful gesture, Jack then proceeds to mercilessly verbally belittle her, calling her by the nickname he has given her, “Simple”, because he believes she is so unintelligent. He then takes great delight in revealing to her that he is Mr Sophistication, enjoying her discomfit as she tries to decide whether or not he’s telling the truth. The cumulative effect of the psychological torment is unsettling, to say the least, and when she does finally realise that he is not lying about being a killer, he revels in suggesting that she scream; the futility of which he demonstrates by shouting out an open window, “_no one will help you_.” It’s a devastating scene, far more emotionally upsetting than it is physically violent, and because of that, it’s one of the best scenes in the film, provoking a genuine emotional response in the viewer beyond mere disgust.
As unsettling as this scene is, the film can also be extremely funny, with the entire 2nd Incident playing out like an extended _Key and Peele_ sketch. Trying to gain entry to a woman’s (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) house, Jack does a hilariously bad impression of a policeman, explaining, “_I don’t have my badge with me because I’m getting a promotion_”, and then cheerfully waving to a passing driver as if they are best friends. Once inside, he only manages to kill his victim at the third attempt, and then, having left the house, his OCD compels him to return three times to check for blood splatters in such places as behind a picture on the wall and under the leg of a chair. Finally, to get away from the cops that have shown up, he ties the body to the back of his van, pulling it along the road, and leaving a blood trail from the house to his industrial freezer, only for it to start raining and erase the blood.
From an aesthetic point of view, Von Trier and regular cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro shoot _House_ in a cinéma vérité style; almost the entire film is handheld, with the immediacy further enhanced by having the focus occasionally drift in and out, creating a scaled-back naturalistic look somewhat reminiscent of John McNaughton’s _Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer_ (1986). The interesting thing about shooting it this way, however, is that the pseudo-documentarian visual approach clashes with the narrative and thematic concerns, which more closely resemble Mary Harron’s _American Psycho_ (2000); both films are focused on unreliable narrators, both feature scenes in which the killers try to confess their crimes and are ignored, and both tell stories that may very well be taking place only in the demented mind of the central character. In a general aesthetic sense, the film ends on a very strong note as Jack and Verge descend to hell (“Katabasis” is the Ancient Greek word for “descent”). This incredible sequence starts with a stunning repurposing of Eugène Delacroix’s _La Barque de Dante_ (1822), and culminates in a Hell that’s equal parts Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Zdzisław Beksiński.
However, the film is far from perfect. For starters, it can be incredibly self-indulgent. Von Trier’s name, for example, appears on the title card, not in the sense of “A Lars von Trier film”, but just his name, as one would expect to see of a major actor. The film is also unnecessarily long, and there are stretches which are extremely tedious, a problem which also afflicted _Nymph()maniac_, particularly _Volume II_. I’m also not sure that a clip reel of his own films was the wisest choice. Additionally, the female characters are, by the very nature of the film, essentially empty shells who exist only to be murdered. We may feel a degree of sympathy for them (especially Sofie Gråbøl in the 3rd Incident), but only Jacqueline has any degree of psychological verisimilitude. Some of the digressions concerning art and its relationship to love and hate are also (perhaps intentionally) juvenile and intellectually vapid.
Whilst it could be argued that _House_ is about a desensitised world indifferent to suffering, it seems to be more about Lars von Trier and the criticisms that have been levelled against him over the years. Although he doesn’t seem willing to apologise for anything, he is more than happy to defend, attempting to use the depiction of violence so as to facilitate introspection, reflecting on the importance (or lack thereof) of morality and culpability in artistic creation. Does he point the finger at an indifferent and often culpable audience yearning for blood, such as Michael Haneke does in _Funny Games_ (1997)? Is he using violent extremes to criticise societal oppression and exploitation, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini does in _Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma_ (1975)? Is he simply mocking the contemporary craze for thrill-kill films and TV shows? The answer to each is perhaps. _House_ is an especially self-reflexive and somewhat self-disdainful film, which Von Trier has intimated may be his last. If that is so, it certainly makes for a fittingly provocative and confrontational final word.