The reviews are piling in. The general consensus? Shock. Outrage. Confusion. The House That Jack Built received a mixed reception at Cannes. Many walked out. Those who stayed applauded. The depravity of the lead character has jolted viewers. His actions are brutal, callous and extreme. Why are people shocked though? He's a psychopathic serial killer after all.
There are many films and television shows about serial killers. Some of them use the murders as a subsidiary to the psychological underpinning of the protagonist. Others are more willing to examine the violence. Lars von Trier's intimate exploration of his eponymous Jack has plenty of both. It's this, the cerebral and the visceral, that's causing people to walk out of the film.
If an audience isn't shocked by the acts of a serial killer then the film has largely failed. We're told that what remains in the shadows has a greater capability to strike fear into us. That's an easy way out. Too many films rest on not showing enough and expecting the audience to imagine the rest. The thing is, we're not serial killers and the human mind, in general, doesn't like being exerted. We have more chance of being shocked by seeing things rather than imagining it. What was the last scene you saw that stuck with you for what you didn't see compared to what you did?
Jack isn't as much an imaginary serial killer like Hannibal Lecter. Instead, he's a highly accentuated self-portrait of the director. All the accusations wagered against von Trier (misogyny, Nazi, provocateur, egoist) are manifested in his lead's countless murders. Think about it. The whole film is a meditation on the porous border between art and life. There are things that we can get away with in art (this film, for example) that we can't in life (murder). All the things accused against von Trier in life, now manifest in this film. So how can it be called misogynistic or cruel if it's art? This seems to be the most important theme of the film.
The director stated that the film celebrated "the idea that life is evil and soulless." Knowing that he's dealt with cocaine and alcohol addiction alongside depression and crippling anxiety makes the intensity of this film more understandable. When everything else around you feels muted, it takes a loud scream to pierce the silence.
When we try to experience life, we do so through pain and pleasure. Usually that's part of the deal. To have one, you must have the other. Jack derives great pleasure from his architectural work, although the house he is occupied with building for himself becomes a niggling, incomplete spectre throughout the film. It's an outward projection of his inner state-of-being. In the end, when the perfect idea strikes him, he is as close to where he needs to be. His madness has reached fever-pitch.
The film intertwines an internal monologues (with Virgil) and deeply philosophical musings on the nature and place of art that shuffles between Renaissance paintings and Nazi propaganda. It seems like, considering the breadth of thought traversed, that von Trier is writing a confessional essay somehow linking religion, creativity and life in the public eye.
This may be his last film. After a successful and controversial career, beginning as a virtuoso young filmmaker and working through numerous ups and downs, a culmination in such a thought-provoking piece makes sense. It's as if von Trier has put himself on public trial. His brutal honesty is endearing and the forthrightness of the film's delicate topics (child murder, animal cruelty, obsession) can only justifiably make us cover our eyes if we are also willing to refuse news and history. In doing so, we inevitably allow it to all repeat. This is real life. Real life is shocking. Honest depictions of such extremes are hard to come by. Art and film is not the news though, there are no obligations to decorum.
All of Jack's crimes have justification, albeit ones shoehorned to fit. Between the high-art musings and low-life killings is some well-acted, yet vaguely B-movie material. This isn't a bad thing. It's instant cult appeal. It's the kind of thing that you'd expect at an American movie drive-through that was curated by philosophy majors and film nerds. You'll be glad you smoked the joint, but also a bit gutted that you're missing out on the deep stuff. It's definitely worth a repeat viewing.
It's also quite funny. In what could be the darkest comedy ever written, von Trier allows elements of satire to creep in, forcing us to question our convictions about what is acceptable and why. Aquaman it is not and hat's why it's necessary. If this film shocks you, then the astronomical budget and CGI'd physiques of these Hollywood blockbusters should make you sick. It's an awkward anti-film featuring an anti-hero that plays out like a meandering and singular splatter-film that has just got a PhD in psychoanalytics.
I hope it isn't Lars von Trier's last outing. For every 'hero' like Christopher Nolan, we need a villain like him. There's no reason for him to quit, it's a role he loves. Let's just hope that all the fire from his belly wasn't breathed out here. Leaving with scorched eyebrows, an upset stomach and a list of things to Google - his is a flame we can't afford to extinguish through knee-jerk criticism.
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