Montag, 3. Dezember 2018

The House That Jack Built

It's an interesting, and slightly maddening, experience to watch The House That Jack Built, the latest offering from controversial Danish director Lars von Trier, shortly after finishing the new season of BoJack Horseman, the critically acclaimed animated Netflix show about the zany misadventures and emotional toxicity of a washed-up sitcom star.

This year, in its fifth season, the series, which throughout its run has been maturely dealing with weighty issues such as depression and addiction as a matter of course, has zeroed in on an especially delicate thematic concern – the idea that admitting to having a problem is not the same as actually tackling that problem. More often than not, self-flagellation is a solipsistic performance rather than meaningful self-improvement. Or, as one character succinctly puts it in an earlier season: "You can't keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it okay. You need to be better."

It takes a certain degree of self-awareness to reach that point – and BoJack is taking that awareness to remarkable creative and emotional places. Jack, on the other hand, for most of its fitfully engaging 155 minutes, is painfully unaware of its own unreflected narcissism, which it tries to pass off as a tongue-in-cheek self-indictment.

The film stars the excellent Matt Dillon as Jack, an engineer and would-be architect who gains notoriety as a sadistic serial killer during the 1970s and 1980s. Echoing the structure of Nymph()maniac (2013), it flouts a straightforward narrative in favour of five episodes, or "incidents," each retelling one specific murder – a smug quasi-confession, which Jack, in a variation on Dante's Inferno, directs at the Roman poet Virgil (Bruno Ganz) via voice-over.

The metaphorical thrust of The House That Jack Built is so obvious that it feels like a stretch to call it subtext – the movie even features clips from Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011), and other works by von Trier. What he is essentially doing here, by graphically detailing a cold-blooded psychopath's gruesome dismemberments, killings, and posthumous desecrations of (mostly) women and children, is pronouncing to the world his knowledge that he is a bit of a creep.

Jack (Matt Dillon) is a highly intelligent psychopath.
© Concorde Filmverleih GmbH
There's nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. Over the last ten years, von Trier's projects have invariably been thinly veiled cinematic therapy sessions. And it's undeniably true that he has cultivated an image of rude, standoffish arrogance ever since he co-founded the Dogme 95 filmmaking collective: he has expressed sympathy for Hitler and called himself a Nazi; he freely admits to being a tyrant on set; and at least a few of his movies reek of misogyny posing as female empowerment. Considering all of this, a little self-criticism would definitely not go amiss.

This is where the comparison with BoJack Horseman becomes relevant, however. The House That Jack Built is less a case of von Trier confronting and exorcising his demons than of him hyperbolically playing them up in a sort of best-of compilation. Jack, von Trier's on-screen alter ego, is an almost comically evil mastermind, fully aware of his own narcissistic superiority complex and quick to defend his bloody deeds as high art: "Do not look at the acts, look at the works," he tells a bemused Virgil at one point.

Yes, this is filtered through a thick layer of irony, but it's the kind of puerile irony that seems rather like a defence mechanism – a distant relative of the "Relax, it's just a joke" brand of bigotry – than a serious distancing of the author from his text. If the audience is indeed meant to read Jack as an irredeemable villain, the film offers precious little in terms of resistance to him: he gets to tell his own story, to spout misogynistic slogans, to wax poetic about his own "handiwork" with only the mildest and most sporadic of pushbacks from Virgil. The result is an entirely performative act of navel-gazing, an infuriating refusal to truly engage with the implications of having a Lars von Trier stand-in brutally slaughter a bunch of women. In this context, the primary purpose of invoking the unreliable-narrator trope appears not to be to undercut said narrator but to deflect any criticism directed at him.

Every once in a while, Jack feels the need to kill.
© Concorde Filmverleih GmbH
For fairness' sake, one should concede that the film, ultimately, seems to be grasping for some sort of redemption. In an extended, Dante-inspired epilogue, which ranks among the more brilliant things von Trier has ever directed, The House That Jack Built does reckon with Jack's disturbing psychopathy – if only metaphysically – before playing "Hit the Road Jack" over the end credits, apparently acknowledging the merit of at least the idea of "doing better."

However, by that point, the audience has already been subjected to more than two hours of off-putting, self-important theatrics, most of which seem to actively relish in Jack's atrocities. Finding this kind of perverted joy in the breaking of taboos may be one of cinema's oldest traditions. But in The House That Jack Built, it not only seems like shock value for shock value's sake – it feels like it belies what the film as a whole attempts, and utterly fails, to achieve.


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