The centerpiece—soul, even—of every Lars von Trier film is a scene of compelling destruction. Breaking the Waves (1996), a fictional tale, has Emily Watson on a stretcher believing that the love of her life needed her raped and beaten in order to survive himself. In the 2003 documentary The Five Obstructions, von Trier’s real-life mentor Jørgen Leth is served an elaborate meal in the red-light district of Mumbai. The local poverty serves to highlight Leth’s wealth and privilege, of course, but we watch something more complex erode in the relationship between the two Danish filmmakers—respect, maybe, or admiration, and the combination is gutting and awful. Melancholia (2011) famously depicts the end of everything, full stop, and the film both begins and ends with the most aesthetically pleasing images of our own demise yet viewed onscreen. That the sites of destruction are often women’s bodies has led to frequent accusations of misogyny on the part of the filmmaker.
The House That Jack Built is the story of a man who finds relief from anxiety by killing a series of people—women, mostly—in increasingly bizarre ways. As his means of killing become more elaborate, his confidence grows, and soon he is straightforwardly telling both intended victims and police officers that he is a murderer. The scene of elaborate destruction we build to is entirely predictable if you know anything whatsoever about the architect-turned-serial-killer narrative or the filmmaker. Because it is the centerpiece of the film, its soul, it satisfies when it emerges, but we glimpse it only for a second, as if von Trier himself were bored by the only moment of ingenuity he’s conjured in nearly a decade.
Of course, viewers have by then slogged through two hours narrated by one of the least ingenious serial killers to ever enter the public imagination. The genre is riddled with men—usually—and their theories about humanity, as well as their plans for its manipulation, control, or extermination. (Films about female serial killers do exist, but we generally call them “rape revenge fantasies” and dismiss the genre as “emotionally driven” and thus unworthy of inclusion in the “real” serial killer genre.) Von Trier’s titular character Jack, played by Matt Dillon, is no different. He believes he is better than everyone else because he is an artist, beyond morality, gifted with the ability to elicit aesthetic pleasure and thus improve all of humanity. He is a narcissist, like every other serial killer.
The film follows a standard Divine Comedy plotline: a man confesses his crimes as punishment for them in the afterlife is about to commence. Jack’s Vergil is Verge (Bruno Ganz), and, as in Dante’s original, he is a moral being who condemns Jack for crimes against women as a class and humans as a race. In fact, the film switches genres somewhere amid Jack’s self-congratulatory reminiscences of the four distinct murders that organize the tale, and we lapse into a filmic essay. Von Trier lobs moments from his own work—the Melancholia and Breaking the Waves scenes mentioned above are included—into the string of images of great works of architecture and painting and archival footage of Glenn Gould playing the piano that Jack’s narration alludes to. The montage also includes “great” works of, uh, genocide because, you know, serial killers love that shit, but more importantly because von Trier wants us to read Jack as the enfant terrible filmmaker himself, known to create great scenes of compelling destruction. The House That Jack Built is von Trier’s response to his critics.
Yet von Trier is no remorseless killer. In fact, the tired Infernoesque structure is the filmmaker’s way of acknowledging universal order: there is a right and a wrong, he wants us to understand, and certain acts—acts that he himself has depicted on film and therefore has perpetrated in real life in order to film, and which his critics have called into question—are profoundly, eternally wrong. Jack flaunts his crimes to passersby, to victims, to on-duty officers of the peace, yet they continue. Von Trier has suggested that this is a nod to Trumpism, but it more basically functions as a restoration of order. Von Trier is comfortable crossing boundaries when boundaries are clearly marked. In American culture right now, however, the boundaries between right and wrong have become quite blurry. Von Trier feels the need to remind us of the centuries-old distinction between right and wrong so we can properly condemn him for crossing those lines. Look at this horrible man! He hated women before the president did!
Aesthetic sins, too, unfold: ham-fisted flashbacks, often of events that occurred onscreen mere moments before they are relayed to Verge, are the most grievous. There’s a weird recurring bit cribbed from the video for Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that awkwardly seeks to ally Jack with, I dunno, super famous people or something. (Von Trier’s grasp of the U.S., where he has never been, has always been shaky.) The archival footage is frequently replayed, too, so that by the end of the film we are left with the impression that we have just watched a fairly standard B-grade horror movie remixed by a first-year art-school student who feels he has something to say. And that we have watched it twice in a row. Because that’s the way it was intended to be screened.
An actor of limited range, Dillon capably depicts the self-aware psychopath. In fact, he underplays the emotionless Jack so thoroughly that his greatest line is an affirmative “OK,” delivered to his girlfriend/victim Jacqueline, both cast in the flat, uninspired tones of the 1970s color palette the film is staged in. He calls her Simple as part of his torture regime—it’s also von Trier’s self-aware nod to critics accusing him of misogyny. Von Trier doesn’t like simplicity. When an early draft of Antichrist was completed, the filmmaker wasn’t satisfied with the volume of hate it directed at women, so he sought out an expert on the subject to push the misogynistic aspects further. Of course the real experts on misogyny are all women, so von Trier found misogyny expert Heidi Laura and paid her to offer advice on more effective means of depicting the deeply seated despisement of women in his film. Would a misogynist do that? (It’s a serious question.)
Simple is, therefore, a smoke screen. Walk through it and you’re left with Jack, who has already killed someone with a tire jack (get it?), and now he’s emotionally moved by and ultimately kills someone he calls Simple but who is really named Jacqueline, the feminine version of himself. “If one is so unfortunate as to have been born male, then you’re also born guilty. Think of the injustice in that!,” Jack even tells Jacqueline. It’s both the big reveal that the women von Trier abuses in his films are all versions of himself and an invitation to imagine what sort of film we might have been left with had she been granted protagonist status in a “real” serial killer film, The House That Jacqueline Built.
But von Trier didn’t make that film. Instead he tossed off this puerile attempt to silence his critics, using without examination every tired trope from the male serial killer movie genre there is, and then layering another trite trip-to-hell story line over it. The filmmaker’s work was interesting—fascinating, occasionally repellent, but often excellent—when misogyny and misanthropy were driving forces. Here, examined, we’re given instead raw narcissism, humdrum in the end, a soul worth glimpsing only for a second before casting aside. Nothing to behold. v