If you want to watch a thought provoking – yet incredibly violent – film in which a director reflects on the provocative and extreme content of their previous films, using allegory – and establishing a directorial surrogate – to make you question the boundary between art and artist… just watch Dargio Argento’s Tenebrae. It (mostly) holds up excellently and is far superior to Lars Von Trier’s turgid The House that Jack Built.
Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t like Lars Von Trier. Him or his films.
I really disliked the contrived misery porn of Dancer in the Dark; I found Dogville to be aesthetically interesting but onerous (and another example of ‘let’s just give a woman a bad time for hours’); I thought Antichrist was crude and nasty, showing a misunderstanding of effective exploitation cinema. I did like Melancholia, but I watched it a while ago and now can’t really remember anything about it. That’s where my history with the man ends.
Oh, and there’s the Cannes thing which is unforgiveable. In fact, I paused The House that Jack Built part way through (during a segment when the protagonist – which the film goes out of the way to present as a directorial surrogate – praises dictators and war criminals) to rewatch the Cannes fiasco to see if it was as bad as I remembered. It was somehow worse. If you’re tempted to watch The House that Jack Built, watch that interview again and then avoid the rest of his work forever.
This all being said, The House that Jack Built, even in a vacuum, has enough going against it.
The film’s plot centres around Jack (a hammy Matt Dillon) – by the end he has built a house (spoilers) – and uses a framing device in which he has incredibly boring, long-winded conversations with Virgil (Dante’s Inferno’s fictionalised version, not actual poet) – yes, Virgil. It’s stupid film. Virgil is played by the fantastic Bruno Ganz (who we sadly lost this year), so just go watch The American Friend to remind you of his brilliance. Anyway, these conversations are merely auditory, and are paired up with assorted footage to compliment the talk. It feels like being given a presentation and the content is ridiculous. It’s unbelievably up itself and is no way near as clever as it thinks it is. However, the major sin of the film – as a whole – is being boring. This is a movie populated by barbaric acts of violence – which is, more frequently than not – overtly misogynistic, and it’s just dull. There is content which is undoubtedly offensive, problematic and tasteless, but to be provoked by it would be to play into Lars’ hands. He wants to upset his audience, he sees himself as an agent-provocateur. This by itself is rather empty but if you’re going to be a successful agitator, you have to be compelling. His work is so boring in a way that is antithetical to outrage. It’s a film that will only provoke frequent sighing and eye-rolling. The strongest I got was telling the film to ‘piss off,’ or similar phrases.
These conversation sequences are just the wrapping though, a way to present what is ultimately just a sequence of context-less murders referred to as ‘incidents.’ These sequences are uniformly grotesque and utterly uncompelling. Lars Von Trier is a person who has populated so many of his films with oppressed and humiliated women. He ladles on misery and oppression in a way that seems sadistic and pointed. Much like how Dario Argento played with the idea that violent media causes violence in Tenebrae, slyly winking at the audience and saying ‘maybe I am dangerous,’ Lars pushes the idea that, ‘maybe I am a how I appear.’ But how he appears is as a sadistic, Nazi sympathising misogynist. And there’s no wink. There’s no sly sensibility. There’s no playfulness. Argento was responding to puritanical fears playfully – a consummate agitator riling up the right people. Lars Von Trier is just saying: I am the monster you think I am.
But even this is clumsy and dull. The movie is extortionately long – a career issue – and unforgivably baggy. The sequences it is built around are not cogent or shocking critiques, they don’t work on a meta-level beyond the basic premise of: it’s violence against women, or violence in general, that reminds you of the sexism, nihilism and sadism of his previous work (how… clever?). It’s not all violence against women though. There is a later incident involving a group, but the film specifically focuses on a person of colour (a man); there is a sequence involving the torturing of a duckling (you wouldn’t find Lucio Fulci doing that, if you’re going to play in the wheelhouse of extreme cinema, learn the rules!), and there is a sequence involving the execution of children (and their mother, of course, because Lars Von Trier). So, the targets are mostly women and are all either vulnerable or stereo-typically oppressed groups. Lars knows what he’s doing. But, once again, I’m not ‘offended.’ I’m not going to give the man what he wants. The film is pathetic: a cloying attempt to provoke that is ultimately pitiful and has only the most simplistic things to say that are drowned out by masturbatory indulgence. The film is conceptually meta and refers outside of itself, but it’s not clever or self-aware. It’s not satirical. It’s not incisive. It’s not sharp. It’s not good. It is, however, terrible.
And, believe me, I’m not some puritan. I’m a passionate supporter of extreme cinema. I host a podcast about banned exploitation films and recently doted over Gaspar Noe’s Climax – now that’s a successful agent-provocateur at work. Being outlandish isn’t enough; having horrible things happen isn’t enough. The film has to be good. It has to have style and it has to be able to affect its audience. The House that Jack Built is just so sterile and clinical – it feels like a non-reactive substance or an inanimate object. Lars Von Trier wants to think he’s made a film so outrageous that people are walking out in disgust. Listen, Lars. They’re walking out because it’s boring and they’ve got better things to do than watch your onanistic crap.
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