The way a person responds to someone else’s behaviors, to institutions, to art works, and to fame tends to be dictated by far deeper, more complex, and knotted influences than just those of reason and morality. For Lars von Trier, one driving influence has seemed to be a committed fascination with the depths of human suffering. This goes all the way back to the juvenile violence of the short films he made as a pre-teen, and it’s in his science-fiction and horror films—and films about the emptiness of faith—from the 1980s and early ‘90s. But the true realization of the Danish director’s powers came in the form of three great, and particularly extreme, works released across two decades: 1996’s Breaking the Waves, 2004’s Dogville, and 2013’s Nymphomaniac.
These films are disturbing and, inarguably, morally compromised, but they distinguish themselves from von Trier’s others in the care they take to understand, feel, and process the weight of their violence; it’s their psychological density, and their emotional veracity, that makes them difficult to dismiss as mere provocations. Which isn’t to say they should be immune to criticism of their conceptions: Von Trier’s motives, the source of his fascination, and in particular the degree of consistency to which he’s chosen women as the subject of his films’ punishments have prompted important conversations that have been worth having and will continue to be. But it also doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest, at least on evidence of The House That Jack Built, that von Trier might encourage these conversations.
Built into the multi-leveled architecture of what already feels like von Trier’s greatest film to date is a relentlessly probing self-critique. The House That Jack Built resembles, at its foundation, various other predation and victimization narratives from throughout von Trier’s filmography, stringing together vignette-like “incidents”—five in all—that depict brutal murders committed by Jack (Matt Dillon), an OCD-afflicted psychopath. But embedded within the recognizable dramaturgy of von Trier’s formally accomplished serial-killer film is the frame of an essay—an enthralling discourse on art and violence conducted through dialectical narrators and dizzying montages that smash together Glenn Gould’s music, William Blake’s poetry, fermenting grapes, Nazi concentration camps, and clips from von Trier’s other films.
For some, the ideas that govern these essay sections may be even harder to stomach than the grotesqueries of the film’s violent set pieces. When Jack’s narration includes lines like “Don’t look at the acts, look at the works,” it’s inevitable that such glibness will be interpreted as the director’s own philosophical worldview. And while that interpretation isn’t entirely wrong, to say that the film represents von Trier’s refusal of culpability for his behavior or that he makes no apologies for his art seems overly simplistic.
Lars von Trier's film is about the ways of responding to art without the boundaries of morality and reason.
Jack does seem to represent some part of von Trier, and the director’s earnest engagement with the character’s compulsion toward violence leads to implicit, deeply disturbing parallels: Jack kills and maims women, while von Trier kills and maims women on screen. But von Trier is just as much represented in The House That Jack Built by the mysterious figure of Verge (Bruno Ganz), who acts simultaneously as a kind of therapist and debate partner, offering guidance to Jack and admonishing him for his arrogance, his misogyny, and his very “convenient” excuses. Verge is no straw man, as he frequently has the last word, allowing von Trier to openly grapple with his hubris and pride.
But at the same time, the film isn’t self-negating, as it’s committed to what’s framed in one essay section as “the noble rot.” Von Trier finds a certain beauty in the recognition and exhibition of our basest capacities—and to that end, the five individual incidents in the film that depict Jack’s violence, though certainly not the most gruesome or gory of all von Trier sequences, are sadistic, cruel, and graphic. But it isn’t necessarily the acts of violence themselves that disturb the most as it is the moments before they occur.
An example of this is the incident in which Jack murders a young woman he refers to as “Simple” (Riley Keough). It’s indicated that the two have been seeing each other for a while when Jack decides, one night in their apartment, to subject Simple to psychological torment and physical mutilation. Von Trier spends a lot of time on the scene, as Jack repeatedly degrades and insults Simple, but then wins back her sympathies by playing on her insecurities with carefully deployed acts of emotional manipulation. Throughout, Von Trier trains his camera on Simple, and on the dawning realization of her fear, pain, and hopelessness. The effect is absolutely devastating, and in a way that violence depicted on film rarely is. It’s also further proof of von Trier’s distance from Jack, a character defined by an incapacity for empathy.
After all, it isn’t so much Jack’s philosophies on violence that make him a von Trier surrogate, but rather his regard for art as unbound expression. But even that idea is trickier than the vaguely alt-right connotation it portends: “Unbound” doesn’t mean “without consequence,” and the film’s last third is largely about disappointment and failure. This opens up a gaping chasm of self-doubt big enough for anyone to fall in, and so The House That Jack Built becomes an even broader consideration of individual fascinations and follies, of ways of responding to art without the boundaries of morality and reason.
This leads, unsurprisingly, to a particularly bleak place, and has even caused some viewers to voice concern over what von Trier may be trying to say about his own path forward as a filmmaker. But only von Trier knows whether the tossed-off suggestion of “Perhaps another one?” that Verge entreats Jack with near the end of the film should be taken literally, or if the defeatism in The House That Jack Built is meant to signify that this really is the last time at bat for the director. It’s certainly true that von Trier’s invocations of despair, though, have found beauty in the act of its transcendence before.