The House That Jack Built was the first film I saw at Sitges film festival. I have to admit, it wasn’t really on my list of must see films, and I suppose it’s worth mentioning that I am most definitely not the target demographic for this movie. I bought my ticket more of out of a sense of morbid curiosity rather than general interest, and this is the context I’m reviewing the film in.
Lars Von Trier’s latest movie purports to be an exploration of the relationship between violence, destruction and art, told through the confessions of Jack, a prolific serial killer with a predilection for art created through murder. I found it to be an empty shell of a movie, one that is a feat of endurance to get through not because it’s gruesome, but because it’s boring and introspective to the point of being a navel-gazing exercise in narcissism.
The film has been controversial, with reports of over 100 walkouts and groans from the audience at Cannes, but that was a million miles from the reception it got at Sitges. At a film festival where the audience is predisposed to violence and gore, the film was treated more like a typical horror movie would in this kind of crowd, with cheers and jeers, and it made me think about why the film has been so controversial elsewhere.
The House That Jack Built is not the most violent film ever made, and when I think about the Category III films from Hong Kong I watched through my MA, the violence and gore kind of pale in comparison. Is the visceral reaction it’s received related to the fact that Von Trier is both a respected filmmaker making films for a world where this is not the norm, and also that he’s attempted to draw a link between violence and art?
The video essay style commentary interspersed throughout the movie really tried to hammer the movie’s central thesis of art as destruction home with all the subtlety of a car jack to the head, and I just did not connect to it. It’s clear that that Von Trier intends this to be a an allegory for his work as a film maker, but I honestly found the whole thing to be narcissistic and lacking any real impact.
The narrative is cold, clinical, and does not give the viewer room to empathise with either Jack or his victims. Every person who isn’t Jack makes the stupidest choices they possibly could, and while this is lamp shaded in dialogue, it kind of feels like a cop out. There’s no tension – the worst possible thing that could happen will always be the thing that happens in the universe that Von Trier built, and I think that contributed to how bored I was.
I couldn’t tell if this was the point, to throw light on how jaded we have become perhaps, but in a film where the Jack is so satisfied with his own superiority, and we’re talking about how men are perpetually guilty just by being alive, I can’t help but feel like I’m giving him a bit too much credit. Coupled with the level of unrelenting unpleasantness directed towards women in the film, it’s just not something that needed to be said like this in 2018. We don’t need Von Trier to tell us women are under siege. We can just watch the news.