Lars von Trier is finally back in Cannes. If anyone was expecting a rousing return to form after the uneven Nymphomaniac, expect to be disappointed by The House That Jack Built. The gloomy Dane has let his worst impulses get the worst of him here, creating a work that is not only sickening but also incredibly juvenile. It is the biggest let down of the festival so far.
This serial killer drama is structured around five sections, each one based on a particularly gruesome murder. The first section first stars Uma Thurman as an unnamed woman with a flat tire and a broken jack (get it?). Engineer/aspiring architect Jack (Matt Dillon) spots her on the side of the road and begrudgingly agrees to help her. She tells him he looks like a serial killer, before ironically giving him advice on how to get away with murder. You can already tell how this and the other stories end — watching Jack strangle middle-aged women, torture children, and even pay homage to The Human Centipede. This is not a film for the faint of stomach.
Scenarios like these are interspersed with video footage of Glenn Gould playing the piano, Jack holding up buzzwords in the style of Bob Dylan in “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and endless analogies about lampposts, animals, and the sheathing of wheat. Jack is telling his story to a man named Verge (Bruno Ganz) in an unspecified place that suggests purgatory. The structure is reminiscent of Nymphomaniac, suggesting that late-period Von Trier is transitioning into a looser, more essayistic style. But while Nymphomaniac managed to keep us interested due to its more enjoyable subject matter, The House That Jack Built is a relentless, boring slog.
By themselves, these digressions are interesting and extremely well-edited, but in combination with the five gruesome episodes, they come across as self-congratulatory. Once we get to the final section — an unexpected odyssey that finally reveals the meaning behind Verge’s name — things do pick up considerably, but ultimately it feels completely unearned.
Von Trier is trying to exhaust us — to argue, in his own words, that “life is evil and soulless.” Jack asks one victim to scream as loudly as she can, because it doesn’t even matter; no one cares. Even the police are particularly stupid here, unable to catch Jack as he commits crimes in plain sight. No matter what happens, he gets away with it. Even when he leaves a telling and bloody trail along the road, a heavenly rain comes out of nowhere and washes it all away. He’s an artist, he is male, and he is blessed.
There are contemporary echoes here, with many of the men accused in the #metoo movement, including Lars von Trier himself, allowing their pursuit of art to shield them from their crimes. Is the content of their work worthy of their terrible behaviour, lying in plain sight for so many years? Like the unseen I Love You, Daddy last year, Von Trier is showing us the worst parts of himself and daring us to applaud him. Once his protagonist starts talking about the beauty of genocidal war criminals, it’s like finding yourself at the very bottom of the dark web full of infantile men trying their best to be edgy. Jack believes that the suffering of his victims is inconsequential compared to his art. The truth is, this piece of art is inconsequential to the suffering of people sitting through it.
Making a film about a serial killer need not mean losing your sense of humanity. Shôhei Imamura’s Vengeance of Mine with Ken Ogata, for example, is a fascinating portrait of a man with absolutely no remorse. In its objective glance, it is a mesmerising look at the worst impulses of humanity that cannot either be psychoanalysed or understood properly, all the while remembering to make the victims genuine people.
Lars von Trier has been painted as a misanthrope, yet many of his previous films, such as Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves, have been haunting and compassionate meditations on the state of the human condition. He even made a charming comedy just twelve years ago in the form of the little seen The Director. Now it’s as if he only listened to his worst critics and is actively trying his best to piss them off. Coming from a man in his sixties, it’s frankly pathetic.
This complete descent into nihilism is Von Trier’s purpose here, an attempt to make a film that will shock the sensibilities of anybody who dares to watch it. Perhaps the greater shock for people will be finding out how bereft of ideas this director has become.