When Lars von Trier’s new film, The House That Jack Built, takes its inevitable turn into the brickbat, how-Hitler-would-flirt-in-fourth-grade provocation/rumination on the state of the artist, à la himself, I suddenly wondered: who the hell is this film for?
Then von Trier name drops Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and a clearer picture begins to form. The context, of course, is the Goethe Oak at the Buchenwald concentration camp, a metaphor (!) for the incestuous relationship between human suffering and art. This is either before or after he belabors the same point with the metaphor (!) of Noble rot and the creation of wine. (Note to self: my new nickname is The Noble Rotman.) In this way, my mind naturally flocked to Goethe’s The Suffering of Young Werther, a novel I loved in my early twenties—because of course I did! Oh, it was so hard being a suffering artist back then. Suicide was just so romantic, we had to go write poems and make love in the grass.
Alas, The House That Jack Built is a film I would have LOVED when I was twenty-two. And that’s my recommendation: if you’re twenty-two and suffering, go see this film immediately; it’s just for you. Unfortunately, for the older and more jaded amongst us, there ain’t much to offer we haven’t seen before. Which is a shame, because the first half of the film is really, really good.
In case you’ve been living in a hole and not reading Variety on the reg, von Trier’s latest caused a sensation this year at Cannes, when a perfectly round number of one hundred people walked out halfway through, and yet the film still received a ten-minute standing ovation at the end. Which, in 2018, is pretty much the response you’d expect for a guy who has declared himself a Nazi.
The House That Jack Built follows Matt Dillon as the titular Jack, a serial killer who tells his life story through five “incidents” of murder. That’s basically it, without giving away some interesting (read: batshit insane) twists and turns along the way. Uma Thurman shows up. As does Bruno Ganz and Siobhan Fallon Hogan. In a film such as this, you probably shouldn’t get attached to any particular character for too long.
But as I said, the first half is a masterpiece, some of von Trier’s best and most effective filmmaking to date. As a matter of fact, if you could somehow lob off the second portion and package the first 90 minutes, it would be, by far, my favorite von Trier film. Because it’s hilarious.
Yep, you heard me right. It’s goddamned funny, which is certainly something I wasn’t expecting. But fair warning, if you watch this at home by yourself and not in a theater full of people, you will probably think I’m as deranged as Jack. This morning, I was explaining just how humorous I thought it was to a buddy who had caught it on streaming a few weeks back, and he just politely nodded and cautiously took a few steps back. Yet, in a full theater, it played like a friggin’ Farrelly Brothers film, as Matt Dillon clumsily offs some poor souls, while simultaneously getting bailed out by outrageous acts of irony, which then leads him to believe he is some invincible, divine figure in the cosmic scheme of things.
Unfortunately, the fun can’t last, and von Trier transitions into his main thesis—basically a ham-fisted defense of all the criticisms leveled at him over the years, such as misogyny and over-indulgence. Essentially, a giant “Sorry, fuck you, I’m not really sorry” kind of thing. It’s definitely interesting and will give us film nerds plenty of fodder to yell at each other over on Twitter, but it ultimately drags the film down, muting what could be the director’s most beautiful ending.
Thus I come back to my initial point: while The House That Jack Built isn’t necessarily for me, it will be for some, especially those of the younger, under-developed persuasion. For the rest of us, the film doesn’t tell us anything about the world or art that we couldn’t have already gleaned from the ending of Brian de Palma’s Blow Out. Yes, there are legitimate questions about the burden the artist places on others and if (decent) art requires pain and human suffering. Regrettably, for von Trier, these questions have already been asked before.