What should I do with a movie like The House That Jack Built? Not only is it a Lars von Trier movie, which can’t be a walk in the park at the best of times, but it seems to be his most controversial feature yet, and that is saying something. There are moments in Melancholia (2011) that are as good as anything I’ve ever seen in a movie. I’ve watched The Element of Crime (1984) more times than I can remember. He’s held parts of the movie-making scene hostage with his Dogma movement, producing some interesting results, only to break his own rules later. On the other hand, von Trier’s movies are, more often than not, unkind or cruel to its women. And The House That Jack Built is about a serial killer whose victims are mostly women. At least in this feature, von Trier’s misanthropy cannot fully obscure his misogyny. I know that it would be a grave mistake to confuse the writer-director’s attitude with the movie’s, but it’s von Trier’s oeuvre that seems to repeatedly mistreat its female characters. I try to give him the benefit of doubt, but there is a point where my doubt shows cracks.
To wit: The House That Jack Built is divided into five ‘incidents’, as the movie calls them, and Jack’s work consists of a surprisingly relaxed killing spree of women, children and the occasional male, as well as a scene of animal mutilation, with the aim of letting the dead bodies turn into some kind of art, revealed at the end. I sat there for the first 30 minutes, hoping that I would see some kind of Titus Andronicus: no point, no message, certainly no morals, but some kind of bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake. A kind of panoramic display of graphic nihilism. Some critics claim that Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare having fun, without caring how that plays to the audience: stabbing, hanging and people baked into pies just for the sheer hell of it. Von Trier has other plans: he seems to want to emulate Dante, because why else would Jack (Matt Dillon) meet a character called Verge (Bruno Ganz) who leads him into one of the circles of hell? There is no doubt that Jack is an evil man, and the movie knows that, but why is von Trier unable to take a step back and let us know what he thinks about his protagonist? There is a moment when even Verge is disgusted by Jack’s crimes.
I’ll say this for the movie: you can see the next violent scene from a mile away. The violence is never sudden, it’s always announced in some way. There is a moment when Jacks takes a felt-pen and draws a surgeon’s circle around a woman’s breasts. And what is going to happen is exactly what you think. You can close your eyes, look away, or leave altogether. Which, of course, makes it all the harder to keep looking. And it does nothing to dispel the accusation of misogyny. Jack and Verge have a short discussion about his preferred prey being female, and Verge seems to point to the first victim, played by Uma Thurman, and their verdict seems to be Well, she talked too much, so she had it coming. And it’s hardly the man’s fault. That was the point where I no longer cared for anything or anyone in the movie. A movie can be about misogyny without being misogynistic itself, or course it can, but it needs to take some kind of stance towards its theme. This feature leaves its hatred of women largely uncommented – or if it does, it lets the characters (Jack, Verge) talk about them in a negative way. That makes me think that I’ve just seen a work with woman-hating overtones. Maybe the viewers who gave this film a standing ovation at Cannes can see a loophole, but I can’t. And with von Trier’s track record towards his female characters, that repeated attitude taints him and what I think of him as a movie director.
And Jack goes on killing, experimenting with something that could, at least ideologically, be out of The Human Centipede, and thanks to Verge’s advice he eventually gets his house, just not the brick and mortar one at the lakeside, but one that is a cheap knock-off from the Hannibal series – which, if you really want to delve into the darkest recesses of the human mind, is the way to go. But I no longer had any interest whatsoever in Jack and his way into hell. I usually don’t mind violence in movies, and I pride myself of having an open mind, but if it comes with such contempt that transcends the edge of the screen and colors my opinion of the filmmaker who already has a history of problematic depictions of women, then I’m out.