From The Cannes Film Festival: ‘The House That Jack Built’ Is Von Trier at His Most Brutal… And We Loved It!

Lars Von Trier takes us on a walking tour of a serial killer’s mind. The narrative is presented as the serial killer, Jack (Matt Dillon), telling his story to the poet Virgil (Bruno Gantz) on their way to the afterlife, as in Dante’s Inferno and Purgatory. He tells of horrific murders, brutalising women and children and creating depraved art by mutilating corpses.

So it’s not an easy watch. The violence is graphically brutal. Von Trier utilises practical effects (with one very dodgy looking exception) to create hellish effects and imagery that linger in the imagination. The fate of the character that Jack refers to as “Grumpy” is particularly haunting. This is quite handily Von Trier’s most brutal work yet.

This is to be expected of Von Trier, as is the aesthetic beauty of the film. Von Trier is once again combining handheld documentary style photography with extraordinarily staged tableaus that make incredible use of light and colour. The effect is a dissonance between the gritty outer life and the sublime inner life of the subject.

All of this is, of course, not aimless. Von Trier is once again using upsetting imagery and dark humour to tell a tale of mania, psychosis and the modern world. Here he’s particularly interested in, and therefore critical of, the importance of Art, the lack of compassion in society, and of course misogyny. This might be his most self reflective film yet in which his characters at one stage debate the value of Art at the expense of suffering as clips of Von Trier’s earlier films are shown. If there’s a concrete apology or attempt to excuse himself then I must have missed it. Once again, Von Trier prefers to ask questions than provide answers.

The character of Jack is fascinating. Matt Dillon gives a fearless performance as Von Trier’s most blatant psychopath yet. He exhibits all the behaviours of a sociopath such as a lack of empathy, a profound narcissism, and an uncanny ability to manipulate others. Dillon achieves a wonderful dissonance with the characters he interacts with creating a terrible tension.

Supporting performances vary in quality, though Bruno Ganz as Virgil, another guardian angel role, is superb. His voice is reassuring and full of compassion as he wearily receives Jack’s tale.

The film works as a terrifying horror film, a tense thriller and a haunting character study. It recalls William Lustig’s Maniac or John MacNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It will, unfortunately, likely suffer the same fate of being dismissed by many and engaged with by few.

This film is going to do nothing to change anyone’s mind about Lars Von Trier. Those who  see him as a senseless provocateur will see this as another swipe at good taste. Those with stronger stomachs who are in on the joke will find all of his signature wit and intelligence. Its a singularly cinematic experience that dares to take the Von Trier banquet to a new tier of depravity. Gorge at your own risk.

4.5 / 5

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