State of the Arts

The only shocking thing about Lars von Trier’s mundane serial killer film is our appetite for misogynistic violence

Our columnist Lucy Jones argues that by simply presenting graphic images of violence against women in The House that Jack Built, the controversial Danish director does nothing that hasn’t been done thousands of times before

Thursday 13 December 2018 10:43 GMT
The female characters were weak, gullible and naive and existed to fulfil the sadistic desires of Jack (Matt Dillon)
The female characters were weak, gullible and naive and existed to fulfil the sadistic desires of Jack (Matt Dillon) (IFC Films)

I don’t normally go in for extreme horror. I’d never sit through The Human Centipede, for example. But I have enjoyed films made by Lars von Trier, so I steeled myself for his new serial killer drama The House That Jack Built. Reports of both mass walkouts and standing ovations at early Cannes screenings piqued my interest. I got off to a false start. Within 13 minutes I had to hit stop as repeated images of Uma Thurman’s face being bludgeoned by a car jack began to ruin my dinner, but, after a pause, I persevered. I wish I hadn’t: I struggled to see the point of this horrible, tedious film.

The House That Jack Built runs through a series of killings, called “incidents”, interspersed with a dialogue between a serial killer, Jack (played well by Matt Dillon), and an unknown voice about morality, art, creation and destruction. Jack is a psychopath-by-numbers: practising smiling in the mirror so he can “perform” empathy, and dully holding forth on the practical logistics of killing women and occasionally children and men.

The House That Jack Built official UK trailer

I furiously scanned the film and its dialogue for some original, deeper, enlightening point or analysis of sadism, misogyny, or psychopathy, but, really, it was just your standard, run-of-the-mill, cod-American Psycho serial killer flick with the requisite gory violence against women, women looking terrified, women’s bodies being mutilated, etc. The female characters were weak, gullible and naive and existed to fulfil Jack’s sadistic desires and bring forth the same old violence against women that punctuates our screens time and time again.

The body of an elderly widow was dragged behind Jack’s van, until her face was rubbed off. A young woman tried to run away and get help, but she was left to be chopped up. A mother and her two young sons were hunted like game and then she was forced to feed her dead child picnic food before being shot, well, I don’t know exactly where because at this point I had my hands over my face and I was singing “la la la” at the top of my voice.

The film marked von Trier’s return to Cannes following a ban after his “provocative joke” in 2011 that he “understands” and “sympathises” with Hitler and was a Nazi himself. Megalolz! The House That Jack Built feels like Von Trier’s dirty protest against his detractors – but it also felt jarring and strangely unlike his previous films.

For in the context of the #MeToo era, when the log has been rolled over to reveal a cesspit of widespread and accepted sexual violence and harassment, graphic violence against women on the screen feels passé, even conventional.

There were early reports that the film was about Donald Trump. I didn’t really see Trump in Jack. But I saw the Trumpish world. The film, along with Trump’s presidency and then Brett Kavanaugh’s unhindered rise to power, says this: violence against women is fair game, it’s entertainment, it’s sport, it’s images that sell tickets – “you can do anything”.

The only questions the film raised for me were to do with the value of watching women terrified, mutilated, cut up. What is the point, really? What is the fear that fuels misogyny? Why do some men feel anger and frustration towards women? What is the root of the rage and resentment? But none of these were analysed or explored. Violations weren’t used to illuminate a facet of an individual’s character, life history or psyche, nor of society at large.

As I watched, I wondered how the experience of watching violent fantasies of female mutilation differ between men and women. Few women are murdered by a serial killer, but many have felt afraid, and lots have experienced assault. When I watch a scene of sexual violence, or a woman terrified in a corner by a man, my chest tightens and my stomach turns. Many women know how it feels to be frightened, it is not a stretch, but nor is it, for me, anyway, cathartic. It is simply alienating.

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For a long time, I thought I was just oversensitive, and that my weak stomach for graphic violence had something to do with a Christian upbringing that sheltered me from anything too provocative and “worldly”. But since #MeToo, I question the normalisation of this level of violence. I question why I feel like a prude for not wanting to watch Straw Dogs and its “best rape scene ever shot”, as described by director Sam Peckinpah. I question why we lionise filmmakers who trade in these images. I question why so many TV shows and films feature gratuitous sexual assaults. I struggle to see an artistic or intellectual point in it, apart from the titillation for a certain type of man who hates women and fantasises about their pain.

Of course violence, rape, psychopathy, brutality, nihilistic cruelty and so on must be subjects for the arts – anything that happens in life should be – but there is a difference between the showing of, for example, Jack sawing off the breasts of “Simple”, his naive girlfriend, one of which he later uses for a coin purse, to the 2016 film Elle, which centres on the complex experience and response of a woman after rape. Simply presenting graphic images of violence against women is a cheap shot, and one that has been done thousands of times before. There are infinite different things to point a camera at, why choose that?

But it’s not just ageing enfant terribles like Von Trier. Our nonchalance about excessive misogynistic violence on screen says something about how we feel about women, and of course how Hollywood and the film industry think about women, which, as we now know post-Weinstein, is not a great deal, unless they’re fulfilling sexual or violent desires.

Perhaps Von Trier is one step ahead and making just that point. By creating a lead character and his “art” that are banal and boring, he lays bare the absence of value in this kind of violence. He shows it up for what it is: stupid, shallow, empty and bizarrely normalised. When Jack exclaims, “You kill art by imposing your moral rules on it,” he appears ridiculous, for his “art” is a house built out of mutilated corpses. But I doubt it. The most shocking thing about The House That Jack Built is that Von Trier could make something so mundane – and that we still want to watch women being killed in horrible ways.

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