By JERRY JENAE SAMPSON
Artist, misogynist, Nazi, romantic, nihilist – can an auteur be all things at once? In Lars Von Trier’s case, he can be most things, though he vehemently insists that Nazi is not one.
Throughout THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018) it seems as though Von Trier is using the titular psychopath/artist as a catalyst to address every assumed aspect of his complicated personality. Jack (Matt Dillon) is undoubtedly the closest to a Von Trier avatar presented in his filmography. The meta nature of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT would be lost only to a viewer completely unfamiliar with Von Trier’s previous films, and most will recognize the self-referential scene where Jack tosses away placards expressing aspects of his personality that the film community and critics have focused on.
Egotism. Vulgarity. Rudeness. Impulsiveness. Narcissism. Intelligence. Manipulation. Mood Swings. Verbal Superiority.
These elephants in the room are addressed through a philosophical and somewhat over-indulgent voice-over whilst Jack is led through Dante’s Inferno-style circles of hell by Virge (Bruno Ganz), a mostly disembodied surrogate for the viewer and their questions and counterpoints. Von Trier’s films have never been easily accessible. This is due to both content within his films and without. Viewers are forced to contend with the age-old question: “Can you separate the artist from the art?” The director’s career has been muddied by claims of alleged sexual harassment and media mishaps that have allowed critics to blanket-label Von Trier as a misogynist and Nazi sympathizer.
THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is a statement on art and how people interpret that art. As Jack tells Virge his story in five “Incidents,” he insists that he has committed art, not murder. No matter how cruel and sadistic his act, Jack veers the subject toward the virtue of his art. The story is told in such a way that the audience consistently questions the validity of Jack’s story. He is a completely unreliable narrator, and the stories he tells seem at times too fantastical to be real. Some Incidents, however, strike an honest and familiar nerve.
For many women who are fans of Lars Von Trier, the film has forced a sort of reckoning within. As with any film that deals with “extreme” elements, THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT contains violence almost exclusively against women. There is a brief detour from this abuse – but as Jack’s focus is shifted to children, it doesn’t give much relief. The allegorical and metaphorical significance of the images within THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT have been exhaustively discussed. And it seems that most critical analyses shun the film as pure condescending sexism and a barely veiled attack against the women in Von Trier’s life. But these takes discount other voices in the story.
Janle Hallund, as Von Trier states in an interview on the DVD, had a big part of both this film and Nymphomaniac 1 & 2, which was also heavily criticized. There is also the recurring presence in his films of Uma Thurman (Nymphomaniac), Charlotte Gainsborough (Antichrist), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Dancer in the Dark), and others, giving at least the slightest impression that the working relationship with Von Trier is professional enough to come back for more. Sofie Gråbøl said in an interview with The Guardian, “the environment Lars created was so loving and safe and calm that we were able to shoot these quite disturbing scenes.”
These are the facts that people choose not to reference when talking about Lars Von Trier’s work. But while THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is a mean, depraved, grotesque work of self-introspection, it does not come across as a punishment of women, rather the internal loathing of a mentally disturbed man. As Virge assails, Jack is a “pathetic neurotic riddled with compulsions.” If anything, Von Trier seems to really understand the truth of what it is to be a woman walking in the world, and the implications of the male gaze when that male decides that he can do whatever he wants to a body when the desire overtakes him. People are furious at witnessing violence against women on screen but excuse the presence of such violence in everyday life. This is a recurring theme in society, and it can be said that Von Trier highlights the hypocrisy of a victim-blaming culture at many moments in THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT.
The film also has moments of such surrealism that it is easier to believe the Incidents as fantasies rather than reality. This can be analyzed through the female gaze in a way that doesn’t just dismiss the film as the pure filth that so many viewers wish to classify it as, but as a mirror to a society that would rather turn a blind eye than reckon with how they pit boys and girls and men and women against each other. Toxic masculinity, patriarchal norms, and how Jack, who has a true God-complex, relates to women are key themes in THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT.
It could be assumed that this is Jack’s first kill. He is reticent, withdrawn, not wanting to engage with Lady 1 (Uma Thurman) as she prods him to drive her into town to fix her broken jack (get it?). This scene plays out almost as if Jack’s thoughts are being thrown through her voice.
“Oops. That was a mistake. Me, getting into a car with a stranger. You might as well be a serial killer. Sorry. You do kind of look like one.”
Lady 1 immediately addresses the mistake she may have made; the words that a mother tells her daughter for years and years, only to have the girl climb into the first car that offers her a ride. She insults Jack, instigates, and makes fun of him. She is “asking for it.” No matter what Jack does to get away from her, she just keeps on pushing him. When Jack’s calm exterior cracks and he snaps at her, saying “I was distracted by your goddamn blabbering,” you can almost sense the countless number of men nodding their heads in recognition.
After Jack bludgeons her with the car jack, Virge taunts him, focusing his attention on the fact that the woman was “admittedly unbearable.” Jack’s first incident was almost too cliché for Virge to accept. And the audience sits in that feeling as well. It felt as though Jack were arguing with himself – telling himself that he is too much of a wimp to ever kill anyone. Jack panders to a part of the audience who is trained to think of women as nags.
Instincts are a key element of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT in that Jack’s female victims do not acknowledge theirs. In the next incident, Jack watches Lady 2 (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) as she walks down the street and into her house. He follows her at a crawl, completely conspicuous, but the woman never turns to investigate the bright red van on the otherwise empty road.
When Jack first approaches the house, he tests the door. It’s locked, a first layer of protection that requires Jack to use his well-practiced charisma. As Lady 2 answers the door Jack becomes the embodiment of a person that little girls are taught to fear. He identifies himself as a police officer but cannot produce identification. His eyes scan the space behind the Lady, grasping at any information that will help him earn her trust, help him get inside. His opening comes after dropping one lie and embracing another – he isn’t a cop, but an insurance agent, and he can help get her money. He improvises, but not well, and the instincts that the Lady starts the scene with are quickly dispatched. She even utters, “what’s the worst that can happen” as she opens her door and turns her back to him.
This Incident is meant to show the intensity of Jack’s OCD, but it also shows the importance of instinct and how easily it can be overtaken by a few carefully thought out lies. The abruptness of Lady 2’s turn to trusting Jack is another moment that puts the story into question, not to mention the absurdity of Jack’s bloody getaway. Again, it feels like a dream, the dream of a hero earning his medals. After this kill, Jack becomes more careless, transforming into a “notorious” serial killer called “Mr. Sophistication,” flaunting ego and the hubris that will later cause his plummet into the fires of hell.
The cause of many a theater walk-out, the third Incident aims to punish Lady 3 (Sofie Gråbøl), a mother with two sons, for letting a wolf in the henhouse. Jack has become more comfortable in his killing, more sadistic, his OCD has waned, he has ditched the Gacy-like innocent outcast act for a more rugged, masculine façade.
Jack decries hunting as “distasteful” as he describes the best way to pick off a family of animals. This, of course, leads to the terrible imagery of Jack tracking the kids through the scope on his rifle before shooting each one. Jack states that he has always considered himself an ethical hunter, and he seems to believe it, even as he forces Lady 3 to feed her dead sons pie as he touts his philosophy. At the end of the Incident, Jack has lined the murdered family as a trophy, along with crows that he has culled, as his Voiceover demands that the audience not look at the acts but look at the works. Von Trier is using the most sensitive subject of all, kids, to provoke outrage and anger. This is the scene that caused people to walk out. Not the nearly 4-minute-long strangulation of Lady 2 or the brutal bludgeoning of Lady 1.
The fourth Incident is the most accurate portrayal of an abusive relationship and the lengths society goes to ignore, and often blame, victims. This segment is brutish, manipulative, and feels like the most honest Jack has been in the telling of his story.
Jack claims to have had a real romance with “Simple”/Jacqueline (Riley Keough), the only woman he has actually given a name. But the audience doesn’t see love, only angst. Using the Ted Bundy strategy of faking an injury to seem less threatening, the viewer is forced to watch Jack play with his prey. He endears himself to Jacqueline and then rebukes her. He calls her a dreamboat and then dumb as fuck. Jacqueline is every woman who has been trapped in a small room with a rabid dog. Her face struggles to show love, but ultimately betrays her fear. As the scene escalates, Jack lets Jaqueline run downstairs and plead with a cop, who immediately asks her if she has been drinking. He is unmoved by her begging for help, and ultimately drives away. He refuses to believe her. What follows is a speech that some might think is Von Trier’s inner monologue but comes across more as the filmmaker’s criticism of the self-pitying cries of many self-described “incels.”
“When one is unfortunate enough to have been born male, you’re also born guilty.Think of the injustice in that. Women are always the victims, right? And men, they’re always the criminal.”
This is the kind of speech that most women have probably heard at least twice in their lives. It is what rapists weep on about at their trial. It is what is used against women to make them question their instincts. It is an effect of society and the expectations set upon the sexes by patriarchal and religious norms, yet men see women as the reason they feel put-upon. Jack spits his pathetic diatribe immediately before cutting Jacqueline’s breasts off, slapping one on the cop’s windshield while using the other to fashion a tit-wallet. This is the only moment of sexual violence in the film, yet it doesn’t feel sexualized. On a deeper, subtextual level, it isn’t difficult to see Jacqueline as the embodiment of Jack’s feminine side, one that he detests as weak and stupid. This is a learned hatred, not an inborn one.
In the end, as Jack is left to face the reckoning of his acts, it doesn’t matter that the representations of those murdered are women. They are aspects of Jack’s inner self that he has spent his life trying to kill off. As Virge leads Jack through the Katabasis there is no repentance. In fact, at one point Jack states plainly that he repents nothing.
Women have undeniably been the object of blame in society. The “Eve Complex” taught in organized religion has cast women as the temptress – the cause of the fall of man from the Garden of Eden. The women of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT are the parts within Jack that he rejects and hates. They are Jack’s toxic masculinity, his rejected humanity. They are the gullible Lambs to Jack’s savage Tyger.
Lars Von Trier makes films for himself, not for his viewers. He has said that he makes films that are otherwise not made and uses allegory and symbolism as cheap tricks to make things monumental. That good art is the black forest that people must go through but are afraid to go through. He knows how his critics perceive his films but he simply doesn’t care. Everyone must decide if they can separate the art and the artist, but they must also see that just because someone has the capability of creating something monstruous, it doesn’t make them a monster.