The House That Jack Built, Cannes 2018, review: Lars Von Trier has turned his foibles into art

He's back to doing what he does best, making psychological dramas that essay toxic masculinity

Kaleem Aftab
Tuesday 15 May 2018 13:54
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The House That Jack Built official UK trailer

When Lars von Trier was made persona non grata after making an off-the-cuff remark comparing himself to a Nazi at the press conference for Melancholia in 2011 it seemed fairly certain that the Danish director would not return with a film to the Cannes Film Festival.

Yet here he is - albeit given an out-of-competition slot to say that all is not completely forgiven - and back to doing what he does best, making psychological dramas that essay toxic masculinity.

Whereas previously von Trier has made plenty of films where the memorable and leading performance is from an actress, Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (1996), Björk in Palme d’Or winner Dancer in the Dark (200), Nicole Kidman in Dogville (2003), Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist (2009) and Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, this time he revolves his film around a male serial killer who has pretensions to turn murders into art.

The eponymous Jack is played by Matt Dillon, the American actor whose star has waned since his apex in such classics as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders and Gus van Sant’s To Die For.

This performance is unlikely to bring Dillon back to the leading man status he once enjoyed, although von Trier does successfully exploit his awkwardness and an interest in art to create a character that is difficult to nail down and far from a traditional mad killer.

Von Trier is not interested in a David Fincher-style procedural, or a police chase, indeed the cops when they do appear are incredibly dumb. The film tries to understand the mind of the serial killer, venturing into his childhood, his inner-thoughts and as he did in Antichrist he takes us to an altered reality where the protagonist must escape himself, the real demon of our lives.

Jack relates murders that he has committed in the form of a voice-over confession to Verge (Bruno Ganz) on what sounds like the psychiatrist couch. The first kill he describes is of a hitchhiker called Lady 1 in the end credits.

Uma Thurman as Lady 1 has the bad intuition of joking with Jack that he “looks like a serial killer” and not letting him go on his way when he wants to. This ends in her demise.

We see a few more women in different incidents, played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl and Riley Keough, who he describes in such a way that Verge accuses Jack of making them sound like stupid women.

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Von Trier, who always has fun creating provocative situations, seems to be challenging his critics who have complained that the women in his films are inevitably dumb and that von Trier rather than being a champion of actresses is actually a misogynist.

Believers in the auteur theory will argue that all of von Trier’s films reflect his own state of mind, and the feeling that Jack is some sort of avatar to discuss the director’s own personal psychological demons is reinforced when Larry starts talking about Goethe and the famous Nazi architect Albert Speer.

It’s once again impossible not to relate these moments to the comments made at Cannes by the director about Nazis, although they are not played out to excuse these comments in the film.

The action plods along until it becomes apparent that von Trier is surreptitiously asking one of the big questions of the day, can we get rid of the bodies we’ve collated over our lives to make art, and will this art be accepted or appreciated?

At the moment the jury is still out on whether this can happen with von Trier, but that he has turned his foibles into a movie is typical of a director who always finds it playful to provoke. The pitfall here is at times von Trier seems more concerned by creating metaphors and sly references that this film is never allowed to groove and reach the high watermark of his earlier pictures.

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