The House That Jack Built – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Starring Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Riley Keough, Sofie Gråbøl
Watching The House That Jack Built, this correspondent’s mind turned periodically to a memorable scene in underappreciated schlockbuster Basic Instinct 2 (2006). The scene in question finds Sharon Stone in the dock in a London courtroom (don’t ask), while a barrister expostulates on the motives for her crimes. To paraphrase, she is diagnosed as being suspended between the twin poles of a ‘feeling of omnipotence’ and a ‘conviction that she simply does not exist’. This seems as good an analysis as any with which to approach Lars Von Trier and his latest film.
Of course, as usual with Von Trier, it’s difficult to separate the film one is being invited to watch from the theories, outrages, and anxieties one is being invited to form with respect to its creator. Frankly – twenty-two long years since Breaking the Waves (1996) – this correspondent no longer possesses the time, will or inclination to speculate on what Lars Von Trier is ‘up to’. This is not a dismissal of his work; in fact, it’s probably a more constructive approach then that taken by those who rend their garments in outrage about being ‘baited’, while merrily proceeding to take the bait. And, on those stoical terms, at least, Von Trier’s last film – 2013’s bifurcated Nymphomaniac – delivered. It was miserable, it was a lark, there were six or seven indelible images, a moving performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg, and a cameo from Udo Kier. It was a bunch of stuff, and most of it was fun.
The House That Jack Built is a slightly different proposition. Like Nymphomaniac, the structure is again dialectical – with an unseen interlocutor (Bruno Ganz) accompanying serial killer Jack (Matt Dillon) on a tour of five ‘incidents’ from his grisly career. Also like Nymphomaniac, there is a touch of Tristram Shandy in how each of the segments digresses into tangentially related material supported by animated doodles, archive footage, clips from earlier Von Trier films, and whatever you’re having yourself. In that respect, it has many of Nymphomaniac’s pleasures (a sense of roving imagination, a refusal of tedious ‘classical’ structure) as well as many of its failings, especially the tendency – also present in AntiChrist (2009) – to use the dialectical to create straw man arguments, or to ‘split’ a conflicted internal monologue into something that falls awkwardly between high symbolism and an instructional video.
In terms of what happens in The House That Jack Built, well… it might be easier to say what doesn’t happen in The House That Jack Built. In no particular order: Uma Thurman’s face is beaten in with a tyre jack; children are shot and used for taxidermy; a woman’s breast is mutilated in close-up; a corpse is dragged face-down behind a car; and those are just the parts contrived to stoke extreme reactions. Elsewhere, we learn a bit about the making of wine; surprisingly little about architecture; and – of course – find time for a digression on Nazis. Then there’s the ending, which this review will not spoil, but should delight fans of the ultra-kitsch intertitles in Breaking the Waves, or of 1980s Athena posters.
The film seems to court offense, outrage, reaction, anything – but it feels oddly staid. Some players do a lot with a little (Siobhan Fallon Hogan and Riley Keough emerge best) while others just don’t have much of anything to work with (Sofie Gråbøl, Thurman). Dillon, meanwhile, is shaky – particularly in the (clearly translated) voice-over sections. His thin performance is a reminder that, as much as some commentators fulminate over the treatment of women in Lars Von Trier’s films, he has consistently showcased exceptionally strong performances by actresses – perhaps because these performances push against the schematic machinery of the films, rather than simply moving it from A to B.
As anyone who has read one of the latest raft of ‘What’s To Be Done About Lars?’ articles will know, Von Trier is at a strange juncture. The result is that, as much as his films exist to be discussed, there just isn’t a great deal to say any more. Some parts of the new film are brilliant, but will be decried because other parts are fixated on outraging sensibilities that may not even exist outside of hastily scribbled film festival reviews. The director wants to be heard, but he wants us to know that anything we hear, and any critical interpretation we make of it, he has already turned in on himself tenfold. So out of that minefield of omnipotence and self-abnegation emerges The House That Jack Built. It’s a bunch of stuff. Take it or leave it.