Cinema of Denmark


The House That Jack Built

People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature. Mr. Williams has exalted the ideal of murder to all of us; and to me, therefore, in particular, has deepened the arduousness of my task. Like Aeschylus or Milton in poetry, like Michael Angelo in painting, he has carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity.”

– On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts (Thomas de Quincey)

Serial or sex murder, like fetishism, is a perversion of male intelligence. It is a criminal abstraction, masculine in its deranged egotism and orderliness. It is the asocial equivalent of philosophy, mathematics, and music. There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.

– Sexual Personae (Camille Paglia)

 

[Spoilers ahead]

Lars von Trier’s new film, The House that Jack Built, opens on a black screen with an exchange between a husky-voiced man (Matt Dillon) and an elderly guide (Bruno Ganz) who seems to be walking him through a water body. Despite the guide’s declared indifference, the man recounts the story of his life in five key incidents, which also form the chapters of von Trier’s film. The man, who calls himself Jack, is a serial-killer and the bulk of this film is an overly elaborate visual description of his exploits. We will also learn that the guide is, in fact, the epic poet Virgil (rhyming with Churchill as Ganz would have it) as he appears in Dante’s Inferno, and that he’s descending into hell with Jack to show him his new place.

Taking Inferno as a narrative conceit serves two main purposes. Firstly, it allows for a perspective of the events different from Jack’s, which is otherwise the viewer’s only optic into the film. Interspersed between the “incidents” are illustrated conversations between Jack and Virgil in which the latter, standing in for the audience, acts as the sardonic voice of reason, countering, interrogating and ridiculing Jack’s justification of his murders. Jack, in turn, pre-empts Virgil’s objections, urging him to look beyond moral binaries. The self-aware dialogue between Virgil’s defence of higher impulses of the soul and Jack’s pseudo-Nietzschean materialism is intended to create a distance and produce a dialectical line of thought in the viewer, who is always a vital component in von Trier’s cinema.

Jack places the viewer constantly at the vanishing point of its polemics. Jack’s actions, as they are presented to us are progressively depraved. The first murder, that of a persistent woman with a broken-down car (an unrecognizable Uma Thurman), unfolds like a horror story, moving with an uncomfortable inexorability towards its gruesome climax. While this killing is set up as though the woman were “asking for it”, the victims in the subsequent passages, also mostly women, come across as increasingly helpless and foolish and the murders, increasingly arbitrary. However, as Jack’s discourse moves from belittling women to turning dead children into mannequins and justifying the Holocaust, the film’s pattern becomes clear: von Trier is trying to turn us (and Virgil) off by desecrating what he takes to be bourgeois sacred cows one by one. It’s supposed to be a challenge to the audience’s conception of art, but one that the film itself cannot sustain and must resolve conservatively.

It’s necessary, by the film’s logic, that Jack’s actions be arbitrary and impossible to explain without morally absolute concepts like “evil”. But the film itself strives to give Jack a history, an explanation for his actions. We see Jack as a child in the countryside, isolated from the adult world around him. Even an invitation for punishment, such as snipping off a duckling’s feet, is ignored, apparently instilling a lifelong desire in Jack to invite attention by way of violence. As all serial killer movies must, his incapacity for empathy is summoned. Jack’s audiovisual arguments with Virgil, which in the beginning have an internal consistency however repulsive, culminate in a montage of disparate dictators from around the world – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin – as the subject of discussion moves to Holocaust and ethnic cleansing. It is at this point that the film drops all semblance of presenting Jack’s point of view without compromise or judgment: it’s impossible to speak of these historical figures collectively except in the negative.

Appropriating Dante, secondly, helps Jack foreground its autobiographical aspirations. Throughout, the film hammers in a parallel between the serial-killer and the artist. Beginning the exchange that follows the first murder is an archival clip of Glenn Gould at his piano. “He represents art”, says Jack bluntly, as if to forestall the film’s critics. The smashed face of the first victim is dissolved into a cubist painting, before Jack goes into an illustrated lecture on Gothic architecture. He speaks of the Gothic architects’ capacity to listen to the “will of the material”. Jack is an engineer, but considers himself an architect and his killings, works of art; but how he makes a living, we don’t know (just as we never know which country he is in). He photographs his victims with a film camera, strings them up and arranges them in expressive tableaux. As he commits more crimes, his OCD – the compulsion to forge order and beauty out of chaotic material – disappears and he learns to improvise.

It’s a parallel taken too far of course. Clearly, von Trier sees his own work as one involving physical and mental exploitation of human beings. In the dialogue about crimes against humanity, Jack talks about art and murder belonging to the same rarefied realm, and von Trier cuts to a montage of violent scenes from his films. Just as his own craft is about working with actors and improvising, the scenes of Jack’s murders have no meaning, they are all about process: we see in painstaking (and pain-inducing) detail the way Jack fumblingly goes about negotiating, manipulating and blackmailing his victims. And just as Jack’s primary interest is in the final photos his killings yield, von Trier, it appears, is appealing to look at his films rather than what it has taken him (and others) to finish them. Björk, singer and lead actress of his 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, recently came out about her traumatic working experience with von Trier. A couple of years earlier, the director was declared a persona non grata by the Cannes Film Festival for his backfiring joke about Nazism. So, Jack is perhaps von Trier explaining himself to the world, an apology by way of self-flagellation. It’s also a non-apology, placing his personal mistakes on par with Jack’s crimes and in effect diminishing them.

To be sure, The House that Jack built, is a formally potent film that derives its power not from its lurid descriptions of murder but from the associations it weaves in and around them. The protracted scenes of strangulation and dismemberment are followed by sober, dignified discussions about art and morality, accompanied by images and sounds that embody the highest achievements of humanity (or dead white males, if you please). In a parody of Renaissance still life paintings of game, von Trier continuously associates violence and death with bounty and health. Jack stores the corpses in a cold storage with deep-frozen pizzas, he compares his stocking up of dead bodies to wine-making, a reverse shot of him sniping a child is nauseatingly cut to close-ups of picnic food. This alternation of higher and lower spiritual impulses – the Apollonian-Dionysian duality that Jack and Virgil incarnate – lends the film a provocative dynamism hard to be indifferent to. But it’s a self-defeating project, over-determined as a metaphor, incomplete as psychological portrait. In an overlong, jokey coda, Jack and Virgil take a visual tour of hell up till the inner circle. It’s a redundant passage on any level, narrative, conceptual or emotional. All that you sense here is Lars von Trier nailing himself to a cross and offering it to us as an art installation.

Dancer In The Dark (2000)
Lars von Trier
English

 

Dancer In The DarkThe least everyone could agree on Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), without getting into a debate about its artistic merit, is that it is a work of immense range. Juxtaposing Dogme-styled kitchen sink ultra-realism with musical numbers replete with chorus dancers, it ambitiously attempts to marry genres that are positioned at the opposite ends of a spectrum. It’s a marriage that is perhaps doomed by construct, but in Trier’s film it is intended to be an unholy, internecine union. The flights of musical fantasy that Selma (Björk) launches into, like the stripped scenery of Dogville (2003), serve as Epic Theatrical devices that seek to thwart audience’s uncritical surrender to the film’s drama and continually remind them of the artificiality of the film’s construction. That even such a blatant disfiguration of the film’s tonal integrity doesn’t successfully prevent the audience from total emotional identification with Selma is less an indicator of the film’s conceptual failure than a demonstration of why a multi-generic cinema, like Bollywood, works on the same audience-character dynamic as the straightforward genre entries of the West and why a mixed-mode narrative doesn’t necessarily avoid the pitfalls of Realism. That’s because von Trier the screenwriter is an incurable melodramatist (tempered by von Trier the director), who, by heaping misery upon his protagonists, makes sure that there’s not a single dry eye in the house. (Unsurprisingly, he cites Douglas Sirk as a major inspiration here, but I’d think Sirk’s assimilation of Brecht’s method is a tad more successful). On the other hand, as a musical, von Trier’s film leaves a lot to be desired. He shoots musical numbers like action scenes (in contrast to Peckinpah, who shoots action scenes like musical numbers), forgetting that the secret to a great musical number lies in the Bazinian conquest of space and not time.