Cannes announced Lars von Trier’s auspicious return to the festival after they released their official screening lineup, lending an air of mystery to the auteur’s newest film. What was it about The House That Jack Built—a movie about a serial killer that sounded at least as provocative if not more so than his previous films—that had shifted von Trier from persona non grata to man of the hour? He had been banned from the festival in 2011 after a bizarre press conference for his film Melancholia in which he declared his “sympathy” for Adolf Hitler. As it turns out, The House That Jack Built is von Trier at his most confessional, at times his most tedious, and in its philosophizing about art and artists and what makes art divine, addresses von Trier’s past behavior without apologizing for it.
The House That Jack Built has a structure similar to von Trier’s 2013 film Nymphomaniac: a manifesto-cum-life-story separated into chapters, with the main character’s motivations outlined and explained through factoids and metaphors, like Nazi architecture and the molds that make the best dessert wines and the correct order in which to shoot a family of deer. Rather than being chastened by past controversies, von Trier seems to deliberately jab at the ribs of anyone who was offended by his comments, calling the Stuka dive-bomber the most beautiful airplane ever constructed and praising Nazi Reich Minister Albert Speer’s love of the beauty of ancient Greek ruins.
At least, that’s what his main character does. Matt Dillon plays Jack, a serial killer who, in conversation with a mysterious man named Verge (the name’s meaning becomes much clearer at the end of the movie), discusses a number of incidents (read: serial murders) in his life that he feels are the most important to him. All but one of them involve horrific, almost comically gory violence against women and children, and he tries, at least a little, to understand why he does what he does. “I am constantly being put into these situations, it’s just not fair,” he says after he slips into a woman’s home and prepares to kill her. Explaining the concept of culling crows to two young boys, he tells them, “You are going to determine who you allow to live in your forest,” before dispatching them one by one with a hunting rifle. “If one is so unfortunate to be born male, one is also born guilty,” he opines to another of his victims. If this is meant to be a confessional work from von Trier, at least he has the perspective to know how silly a provocateur sounds when he complains.
The film’s premiere made headlines for the number of walkouts it inspired—around 100, a few critics tweeted—from guests who were sickened by the amount of violence von Trier has managed to fit into The House That Jack Built’s two-plus-hour runtime. It’s no more shocking, though, than what we’ve come to expect from him, and after hearing all the outraged buzz, the press screening the following morning ended up being a little underwhelming. The movie treads a lot of familiar ground, evoking the NBC show Hannibal at a few points—probably because Jack is a killer who enjoys reflecting on the philosophy of his past deeds as much as Hannibal Lecter does. A minor member of Hannibal’s cast makes an appearance in the film, and there’s even a structure made out of corpses reminiscent of the gruesome totem pole in one of the show’s early episodes, though its meaning is wholly different. Von Trier also indulges a few familiar tropes of the serial killer genre: Jack enjoys discussing his crimes, he displayed violent tendencies as a child, and he considers himself OCD, beset by a cleaning compulsion that makes it difficult for him to leave the scene without wiping away every trace of blood.
At about the film’s halfway mark, I found myself growing tired. How much stock should we responsibly put into flawed men’s proselytizing about their art, no matter how horrible or offensive it may be? Jack’s art is his crimes, and because his crimes are art, they are divine. Von Trier’s art is his films, and who are we to criticize something that brings him closer to God? Has Cannes invited him back because the festival itself wants to be seen as progressive? Is a film that treats women’s bodies as fodder for two men to debate the value of art the way to do this, or is it simply giving room to a director whose provocations have grown tiresome given what has come out in the past year about the industry he works in? Before the film’s premiere, von Trier’s producer vowed to “stop slapping asses” while his company, Zentropa, was undergoing sexual harassment investigations. The musical artist Björk posted a Facebook status last October in which she scorned an unnamed “Danish director” who made repeated advances and touched her inappropriately during production on a film (Björk starred in von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark). Von Trier may be a provocateur, but his brand of provocation seems to be growing stale. Are movies that depict gruesome violence done by men who view themselves as much more interesting than they actually are even a surprise anymore, or are they just more needless goading from figures who find joy in shocking an audience just for the sake of doing so?