In a report on the 2011 press conference where Lars von Trier referred to himself as a Nazi and consequently got himself banned from the Cannes Film Festival, the Hollywood Reporter referred to the director as “cinema’s premiere enfant terrible.”
It’s a title that’s well-earned over the director’s years of increasingly provocative films — Breaking the Waves, Antichrist, Melancholia — as well as his behavior in public and on set. There are those comments that got him (temporarily) banned from Cannes and, more seriously, recent allegations of sexual harassment (which did not name him directly, and which he subsequently denied) from the singer Björk, who starred in von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.
As time has passed and his work has become increasingly in conversation with his reputation, the question seems to be whether or not all the fuss that’s inevitably kicked up around each time von Trier releases a new film is truly warranted. Seven years on from that infamous press conference, his latest film, The House That Jack Built, is making waves not only among audiences, but with the Motion Picture Association of America.
The House That Jack Built marked von Trier’s return to Cannes earlier this year, and though the director’s arrival at the premiere earned a standing ovation, the film itself (which stars Matt Dillon as the serial killer Jack) received groans and walkouts in protest of its brutal content. The lead-up to its release has accordingly capitalized on popular morbid curiosity, with an unrated director’s cut playing in theaters for one night only, on Nov. 28, before the R-rated cut opened on Dec. 14.
The one night-only engagement, however, landed distributor IFC Films in a bit of hot water. In a statement, the MPAA wrote that “the screening of an unrated version of the film in such close proximity to the release of the rated version — without obtaining a waiver — is in violation of the rating system’s rules.” (It’s the sour cherry on top of a strange cake of a year for the MPAA, as the organization faced recent criticism for giving Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, a coming-of-age film about an eighth grader, an R rating.)
Though IFC Films briefly faced sanctions, the case has now been resolved, as “IFC Films acknowledges that there was confusion in the marketplace about the rating and has committed to working [...] to avoid any confusion going forward.” The R-rated came to theaters as scheduled, but the unrated director’s cut will only become available in June 2019.
While the MPAA’s concern here is relatively understandable — unlike Eighth Grade, The House That Jack Built isn’t really aimed at a younger audience, and features content worth slapping an R or NC-17 rating on — penalizing IFC Films (a company that has continued to push the envelope by distributing and screening films ranging from The Human Centipede to Blue is the Warmest Color) seems like using a gun to shoot a fly. To a certain degree, it also plays into the hype machine that’s built up around The House That Jack Built, stressing von Trier’s reputation as a provocateur and practically daring an audience to see how much gore they can stomach.
And, boy, does The House That Jack Built have a lot of gore. It’s not necessarily any worse than what you might see on shows like American Horror Story, as noted by Dillon during a New York post-screening Q&A, but it certainly lands with a different impact from a filmmaker known for being a bit of a troll. When women are repeatedly brutalized and children are turned into taxidermy subjects, what is von Trier asking us to take away from it all?
The surface horrors of von Trier’s latest film seem to lie at odds with the filmmaker’s previous work which, while provocative in the same way (using violence of all kinds of unsettle his audience), starred and seemed to empathize with women. Though his characters are subjected to terrors too numerous to count, including rape and murder, they are still ultimately freed, removed from and proven better than the other-ness and marginalization that has enabled their abuse.
That Jack, who murders, tortures, and abuses women, anchors the film initially seems like a rebuke. In between killings, Jack muses on the nature of art (including architecture and symbolism in Nazi Germany), how men have it hard, and other bouts of narcissism and similar self-aggrandizement. Are we as an audience meant to empathize — or sympathize — with him?
By the time the film plays out, the answer to that question is a definitive “no.” Jack’s partner in conversation, Verge (as in Virgil, played by Bruno Ganz), converses with him with ease, but he’s taking Jack to Hell rather than trying to bring him to salvation. Indeed, the film ends with Jack falling into the fiery pits of the lowest circle of Hell after attempting to climb across to the doorway that would lead him to the Elysian Fields. “A few years ago, I wouldn’t have let him die,” von Trier said, speaking about the ending. And yet, this time, he does.
The House That Jack Built has a sense of morality (and a wicked sense of fun, as per a scene in which Jack is seen struggling with his OCD while trying to leave a bloody crime scene, not to mention the film’s gobsmacking, hilarious final musical cue), despite what people may think of its director. It’s also an undeniably reflexive work, an implicit (and then explicit, as von Trier uses clips from his past work) way to address past and present criticisms of his oeuvre. Von Trier isn’t just doing it for the attention (not solely, at least). To a certain extent, he’s defying the “ooh, look how edgy this movie is” vibe that’s come to dominate the discussion around the film.
It’s not a film that, in the end, is about gore, or really trying to sensationalize violence, and von Trier’s use of (and clear reckoning with) violence, specifically against women, feels novel. It damns the filmgoers who would laugh every time Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) was struck in The Hateful Eight, or when Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) leered at a cornered and indebted Billy (Christina Hendricks) in Lost River that he “[likes] to fuck.”
The difficulty is that the moving line between text and subtext can sometimes cause the latter to become lost, especially when the text — Jack’s serial murders and evident lack of remorse — is so in-your-face, and when some of the subtext isn’t so evident. For instance, Jack’s first murder is set up in the kind of way that might make some say that the woman (played by Uma Thurman) “deserved” it, as she tells him he looks like a serial killer, but that he couldn’t kill anyone if he tried. Dillon (who is giving a career-defining performance in the film) has said that he sees the dialogue as purely of Jack’s imagination, rather than what the woman is actually saying (and suggested that that’s what von Trier intended), but that interpretation isn’t obvious when watching the film.
Jack’s ruminations on Glenn Gould and the making of dessert wine might seem like pretension, but they add not just to a sense of Jack’s character but to the text of the film itself, which is dense beyond its reputation as provocation. In coming to love the film — which, thanks to von Trier’s eye, is one of the most upsettingly gorgeous of the year — I’ve wondered if I’ve grown too inured to violence, finding The House That Jack Built’s content upsetting but not something worth walking out on. But gore isn’t quite what von Trier is asking us to contemplate.
Von Trier cares about his work, despite accusations to the contrary; his films are made with empathy, even if, sometimes, their content might suggest otherwise. Jack’s self-described “art” — the people he kills and poses — is made without it, and that distinction sees him cast into Hell. Still, he craves absolution — as, perhaps, his maker does, too.