The House That Jack Built review – Lars von Trier serves up a smirking ordeal of gruesomeness

The Danish provocateur, back at Cannes after a seven-year ban, is on maddening form with a dreary, nasty serial killer thriller partly redeemed by its spectacular finale

Lars von Trier, the giggling charlatan-genius of world cinema, has returned in a kind of triumph to the Cannes playground of provocation from which he was temporarily exiled in 2011, having miscalculated a Nazi gag at a press conference, and proved unable or unwilling to walk it back. He has reappeared to give the finger to all America’s liberal complainers, with a film that casts Uma Thurman – yes, the male-auteur-nemesis Uma Thurman – as the very, very stupid victim of a serial killer, a film that also mocks the sexual politics of grievance and for good measure makes light of tightening up America’s gun laws.

His latest tongue-in-cheek nightmare The House That Jack Built is two and a half hours long but seems much longer – longer than Bayreuth, more vainglorious than Bayreuth. It is an ordeal of gruesomeness and tiresomeness that was every bit as exasperating as I had feared. But it concludes with what I also have to concede is a spectacular horror finale that detonated an almighty épat here in Cannes. The film ends with a colossal but semi-serious bang, an extravagant visual flourish and a cheeky musical outro over the closing credits to leave you laughing in spite of yourself as the house lights come up. But there is silliness and smirkiness where Von Trier believes the delicious black comedy to be.

As ever, this is a pseudo-American Psycho, set in an America that looks heartsinkingly like the forests of Denmark or perhaps Germany, locations in which the appearance of American automobiles and American actors look almost surreally out of place. There is supposedly a place called “Carlson’s Supermarket” near one of these very remote chalets, and although we don’t see this store, we see its brown bag with its logo. I don’t think I have ever seen a more obviously faked artefact in a film in my life.

The House That Jack Built trailer

Matt Dillon plays Jack, a serial killer with around 60 kills under his belt, recounting his grisly career to a man played by Bruno Ganz, on whom we don’t lay eyes until the end. Jack is an intellectually accomplished architect and engineer of private means – the casting of Dillon makes this a stretch – who is a connoisseur of European art and history, a summary of which cheekily includes visual quotations of Von Trier’s own films. But Jack will keep gravitating to his pet subject: The Third Reich. Like Dr Hannibal Lecter, he has a great tendresse for the piano playing of the Canadian master Glenn Gould. Jack is brooding on his private passion project of building a lakeside house from the perfect materials. In his spare time he tops people, bringing back the bodies to an old warehouse in the unspecified “city” with a walk-in freezer.

Jack has killed women, mainly women, and in a gloatingly sadistic manner – he has dismembered them and kept their body parts as souvenirs. He has killed children and also men. But the most purely evil thing he has ever done is shown in flashback when Jack, as a boy, amputates the foot of a sweet yellow duckling with a pair of pliers, and then places the poor animal back in the water to watch it wobble round and round. This moment really did look absolutely, horribly real. Snuff animal cruelty.

But there is an awful lot of boring talking, talking, talking, dialogue in American-English-Google-translated-from-Danish. Faces in extreme murkily lit closeup. Characterisation and narrative events that look improbable rather than mysterious or strange. This is a film that stolidly withholds the horror-thrill that almost any other kind of serial killer film will give you – from The Silence of the Lambs, to Saw, or Seven, or Zodiac, or Kind Hearts and Coronets. And it doesn’t have the pure gonzo-grossout ecstasy of The Human Centipede, although I suspect that Von Trier may have had that in the back of his mind for its final victims.

No, it is all leading up to the final Death Metal Gustave Doré sequence, which gives the whole movie the structure and rhythm of an outrageously ambitious shaggy-dog joke. The giganticism of its coda puts the long, slow, nasty drear of what has gone before into a sort of perspective, and it is ingenious in its way, but like so much of what Von Trier does, the bang is like bursting a paper bag. Very very loudly. It makes for a jump and a shriek. But afterwards it doesn’t stay in your mind, other than to make you shake your head at its distinctive humourless silliness. That mutilated duckling, though. That will stay in my mind. I wish it wouldn’t.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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