The House that Jack Built
[...] It is a pity that the talent that Lars von Trier has showed in almost all of his filmic projects is so badly ruined in what I can only call a piece of entertainment for dumb intellectuals.
[...] If Giuseppe Di Salvatore accuses the film of doing nothing to distance us from the dumbness, stupidity, mediocrity and reductionism of Jack, then this strategy of redundant doubling should be regarded as the singular quality of a film that exposes the very boredom of repetition.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore, Sulgi Lie
GIUSEPPE DI SALVATORE:
In The House that Jack Built, Jack is a serial killer who definitely speaks too much. Showing and staging crime is probably the oldest task of cinema, but speaking of it, or even trying to explain it, is more than a redundant job for cinema. One should not forget that giving an ideology to violence (even if only through sophistry) always equals giving some reason to any ideology to legitimate violence… Therefore, the open-minded critical side of cynicism turns into banal hooliganism. Moreover, even if Lars von Trier’s noble intention of exploring human perversity would be highly worthy of being pursued (as it was for his last films), here we face a simple pastiche of superficial references, through which inconclusive quasi-ideas on art, architecture and the war, or amateurish history and cheap psychology are cobbled together.
I’ll go directly to what seems to be the fundamental issue of the film. Radical evil is nothing more than consciously doing evil while knowing perfectly well that it is evil. It would be interesting to focus on this peculiar ability of human beings, but the reflections that accompany the main character’s knowledge of his evil expresses only stupidity and mediocrity. Now, stupidity and mediocrity actually contaminate Lars von Trier’s entire essayistic project, and not only Jack’s perspective – even if the graphic and digital manipulations of the image in the digressions from the story deserve some attention on a purely formal level.
It is a pity that the talent that Lars von Trier has showed in almost all of his filmic projects is so badly ruined in what I can only call a piece of entertainment for dumb intellectuals. This is also a pity because von Trier has involved an excellent – and probably meta-cinematically - symbolic casting, with superb acting performances by Matt Dillon and Bruno Ganz, and also the poor Glenn Gould, so sadly reduced to his caricatural pop profile. Some relief comes only at the end of the film, when The House that Jack Built courageously develops into a more honest B-movie, as far as it appropriates Dante’s Divina Comedia: here we cannot but laugh, and laughter is always the best medicine.
If you can no longer listen to Glenn Gould’s legendary Bach recordings after having watched The House that Jack Built, then the Danish director has certainly triumphed once again over the poor spectator: from now on, the sublime sounds of Gould’s piano will forever be defiled by images of ghastly and sordid killing – images put into your head by the serial killer and Gould-fan Jack (Matt Dillon) and Lars, his artist-accomplice and doppelgänger behind the camera. For both of them, the old aestheticist motto of “murder as the highest art” seems to be of little value anymore, at least compared to such a devoted dandy as Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) who - almost 30 years ago in The Silence of the Lambs - heightened his deadly pleasures by listening to Gould’s famous interpretation of the “Goldberg Variations”. However, variation is precisely what the all-too ordinary Jack is not capable of anymore in his doings, and so also is Lars in his filming. For killing is indeed as entirely a dull affair for this petit-bourgeois executioner of cleanliness and order as it is for the spectator who has to endure the boredom of the empty repetition of murder after murder, chapter after chapter. Typical for von Trier’s incorporation of external interpretation into the internal discourse of the film, The House that Jack Built delivers the key to its protagonist’s psychopathology right away: OCD as one of the slogans on Jack’s posters announces, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or “Ordnungszwang” as Bruno Ganz pronounces in his impeccable Schwyzerdütsch. It is the dark lesson of the film that this “Ordnungszwang” is bereft of any neurotic attachment, any libidinal enjoyment – it is a just a meaningless duty to be performed.
If Giuseppe Di Salvatore accuses the film of doing nothing to distance us from the dumbness, stupidity, mediocrity and reductionism of Jack, then this strategy of redundant doubling should be regarded as the singular quality of a film that exposes the very boredom of repetition. There are no lurking mysteries hidden in Jack’s house and mind, everything is out in the open. Hence, the confessional voice over between Jack and Verge that was already used in his previous Nymphomaniac cannot lead to any sort of (self-) knowledge: moralism and nihilism converge in the endless chatter of a language without unconsciousness. Consequentially, the final descent into Dante’s Inferno is pure B-movie trash as Giuseppe has rightly noted, as it is simultaneously the self-degradation of Lars von Trier’s own status of one of the world’s top auterist filmmaker into the trash that his (fake) art is made of. Dumb and dumber, numb and number: “I can’t feel anything” cried Joe in the last scene of the first Nymphomaniac. The House that Jack Built is a film that doesn’t feel anything. That’s why we should love this film.
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The House that Jack Built | Film | Lars von Trier | DK-FR-DE-SW 2018 | 155’
First published: January 06, 2019