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Lars von Trier returns to the dark corners of the human psyche in The House that Jack Built

Lars von Trier returns to the dark corners of the human psyche in The House that Jack Built

December 05
20:02 2018

There are lots of places to hide in a movie auditorium. Crouch under the seat. Bury your face in your partner’s shoulder. Even escape to the loo. All this will occur to as you watch — or try not to — Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built.

It’s an appalling film, but please don’t put that on the poster. Or the anti-poster. I don’t mean it that way. This gruesome, horrific, sadism-obsessed work of cinema (showing in the UK from December 12) may be the creation of a troubled or disturbed mind, but so are many things. (See Blake and Goya, even Glenn Gould, all referenced here.) Matt Dillon, in the performance of his life, plays a serial killer for whom murder is a form of sustenance and regeneration. A tyre jack in Uma Thurman’s face; a stranger throttled in her own house; a mother and two kids hunted with a rifle. Worse, far worse, to come.

We know the easy, reflex response to von Trier’s film. At Cannes, Jack was greeted as the Great Dane’s insolent comeback to a festival that had banned him — for alleged Hitler-sympathising comments in the year of Melancholia (2011) — and now look. He is at it again. Blood, power, fascism of the imagination. And the exotic, even erotic, relishing of cruelty.

Trier’s artist-architect hero enjoys cruelty perhaps in the name of some totalitarian payday, by men against newly ascendant women. There’s a whole Dillon speech about that. Perhaps also because sadism is in his veins and genes. Perhaps also because death, rot and putrefaction (another speech) can be mulch to great art. Cue the montage of putrefying grape bunches, illustrating the “noble rot” of sophisticated viniculture.

The character is even called “Mr Sophistication”. He is played with an articulate, controlled, dandyish madness by Dillon, who can also fly into cosmic, screaming rages and pop-eyed apoplexies. There isn’t a second when you don’t believe this man could exist. It’s a brilliant performance.

Matt Dillon plays serial killer Jack

If the movie was made by demons, those inside Von Trier, perhaps they give it its eerie power. Demons — see above — create a lot of art. The House that Jack Built’s horrors are built into a narrative quite literally disjointed, like those dreams or nightmares that make sense more as teasing, troubling poetry than waking logic. Take the unconnected telly-doc inserts of Glenn Gould humming, jabbing and making antic movements at his piano. Don’t these say “Even Bach had his demons”? (Gould clearly believes so.) And if, at a different extreme, misogynists and misanthropes have their demons too, surely it’s better for artists to shout “They’re here!” — even “They’re in here!” (in me) — than to be a silent, perfidious servant of propriety.

Late in the film we move to another dimension, in a boldness of story and structure almost jaw-dropping. Jack hooks up with a philosophising European sage (Bruno Ganz), with whom he has had soundtrack-only duologues throughout the film. Give a movie protagonist a medieval-looking red hood and his companion the name “Virge” and where are we? You got it. The Inferno.

Except that we have been there throughout. This film starts in Hell; turns the heat up slowly through two hours and a half; bravely bears all the insults we will hurl at this artist for prurience and torture porn; and ends up making a movie we shall never forget. For its honesty, agony and unfearing impudence, its calm, rage and vertiginous invention.


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