'The House That Jack Built': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Lars and the unreal girls.

A homicidal spree that doubles as an autoerotic ego massage, Lars von Trier's episodic bloodbath sneers at the controversy that got him banned from Cannes seven years ago.

Never has Lars von Trier worn the badge of bad-boy provocateur with more pride than in The House That Jack Built, even if it's not always clear whether the film's self-importance is mischievous or in earnest. Ostensibly a probing portrait of a serial killer in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s, the movie also is quite literally a descent into hell. But its true raison d'etre is as a masturbatory dialectic about art and creation in which visual nods to Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Stalin and Idi Amin give way to images lifted from across the Danish director's entire body of work.

Returning to Cannes seven years after being banned over his ill-considered jokes about being a Nazi sympathizer, von Trier is anything but contrite. When you come back with a movie rhapsodizing about the aerodynamic perfection of Germany's WWII Stuka dive bombers, lauded for their target accuracy and their terror-inducing sirens, you're not saying sorry, but more likely looking to get a rise out of your audience.

Likewise, the director appears to be addressing more bluntly than ever the charges of misogyny that have been lobbed at him periodically since he put Emily Watson through sexual and spiritual torment 22 years ago in the operatically powerful Breaking the Waves. Working here via the soft-spoken avatar of Matt Dillon's title character, von Trier orchestrates a methodical display of sadistic violence against women, even bumping off two young boys for good measure, then subjecting their devastated mother to a gruesome family picnic before ending her misery. There's nothing like the coldly detached killing of children to spark waves of walkouts.

It seems a direct FU to the current climate of reckoning over gender bias and sexual misconduct when the unrepentant Jack bemoans the misfortune of being born male and therefore guilty, asking: "Why is it always the men's fault?" He even goes as far as saying women make more cooperative victims: "Easier to work with."

Clearly, all this is designed to provoke adverse reactions. But what if instead of outrage and indignation, the response was a numb shrug?

Don't get me wrong — The House That Jack Built is definitely something to see. But what's most surprising is that it's just as often inane as unsettling. Von Trier has created memorable roles for women even as he made their characters suffer. Think not only Watson in Breaking the Waves but Nicole Kidman in Dogville, Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia. The women in this bloated new film, with the exception of Riley Keough — who generates real pathos and gets the nastiest butchering — are characters only in the sketchiest sense of the word, therefore we feel almost as little as Jack does when he dispatches them.

The movie is structured as a quizzical dialogue — complete with cue cards — between Jack and a sardonic interlocutor named Verge (Bruno Ganz). That enigmatic figure remains unseen until more than two hours in, when his classical literary identity is spelled out for those who didn't guess it, and his Divine Comedy role made explicit.

Jack outlines his achievements by selecting five representative "incidents" out of a purported 60 or so total kills, starting with the one that first set him on the path of mass destruction. He stops to pick up a stranded motorist with a broken car jack, stiffly played by Uma Thurman as such a monster of mocking superiority, she practically goads Jack into whacking her, even providing the weapon. You can almost hear von Trier chortling with glee as he imagines us all guiltily thinking she had it coming.

Perhaps anesthetizing us to the violence was part of the point. But it makes the murders just grisly punctuation in the didactic voiceover exchanges about Jack's OCD tendencies (or ordnungszwang, as Verge more grandly puts it), his narcissism, his intelligence, his lack of empathy or his subconscious desire to be caught. Even with all the fancy detours into Glenn Gould, William Blake, gothic cathedral architecture and dessert wine production, this is pretty much serial killer 101.

Segments of muddy animation showing the lengthening and shrinking of shadows under a lamppost describe the space between pleasure and pain that dictates when Jack needs to kill again. But as Verge points out, this is standard addiction-speak, and about as exciting as a PowerPoint presentation.

Some will get hot and bothered over the blatant anti-Americanism that is nothing new for von Trier. For the ill-fated picnic outing with the mother (Sofie Grabol) and her sons, the entire group sports red baseball caps that scream Trump's America even without the MAGA slogan. Other images seem designed to pick at national wounds like the 1998 killing of James Byrd Jr., his body dragged behind a pickup truck; or the barbaric mutilation of Sharon Tate by the Manson family. More than once, Jack points to a culture of indifference that allows murder to go unseen and screams for help to go unheard. The trouble is, it's all a bit obvious to take seriously.

Dillon throws himself unflinchingly into the role, getting progressively more reckless and agitated as Jack's trail of carnage grows. There's droll humor in his aspirations to turn his murders into iconic works of art. He arranges the bodies in trophy photographs that he sends anonymously to local newspapers, signed Mr. Sophistication, with David Bowie's "Fame" used to hammer his hunger for notoriety. But Dillon's performance is constrained by the fact that Jack's most remarkable qualities are more often discussed than shown. Sure, it's a grim spectacle watching him fashion a taxidermy popsicle out of a dead child, but for a psycho-killer, he's on the dull side.

Editor Molly Malene Stensgaard weaves in a wealth of archival material to illustrate the discussions between Jack and Verge. The film's grainy visual texture, however, is mostly unremarkable, with cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro's handheld camera darting nervously back and forth between killer and victim in what becomes a monotonous pattern. The post-picnic tableau is certainly striking, as is a flashback to Jack's childhood, observing field workers cutting the meadows with scythes. (That interlude also includes the film's most casually horrific image, involving shocking cruelty to an animal.)

Von Trier and production designer Simone Grau Roney save the real visual flourishes for the concluding stretch, in which Jack's architectural ambitions finally are realized; and in the epilogue that follows, when Verge guides Jack to his inevitable ultimate destination. It remains open to interpretation whether von Trier also is consigning himself there as an artist, just as it's up for debate whether the movie is actually glorifying human suffering.

The jokey shift in tone over the end credits to Buster Poindexter doing "Hit the Road Jack" suggests there’s not really a consistent thesis of any kind behind all the windy discourse. It's ironic, however, that the frequently brilliant von Trier is so intent here on proclaiming his own genius at great length in one of his least forceful films.

Distribution: IFC Films
Production companies: Zentropa Entertainments31, Zentropa Sweden, Slot Machine, Zentropa France, Zentropa Koln

Cast: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Grabol, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies, David Bailie
Director: Lars von Trier
Screenwriter: Lars von Trier, based on an idea by Jenle Hallund, Lars von Trier
Producer: Louise Vesth
Executive producers: Tomas Eskilsson, Thomas Gammeltoft, Leonid Ogarev, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Charlotte Pedersen
Director of photography: Manuel Alberto Claro
Production designer: Simone Grau Roney
Costume designer: Manon Rasmussen
Editor: Molly Malene Stensgaard
Visual effects supervisor: Peter Hjorth
Additional direction: Anders Refn
Casting: Des Hamilton, Avy Kaufman, Lara Manwaring
Sales: TrustNordisk
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)

153 minutes