The House That Jack Built provocatively applicates bloody ligaments as a foundation for artistic philosophy. Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’, ‘Inferno’. A journey into the diabolical descent of hell, with concentric circles depicting the sins of torment. Lust. Greed. Wrath. Gluttony. Heresy. Layers of transgressive retribution that reap the souls of those suffering its torturous methods. Dante’s Inferno, along with Purgatorio and Paradiso, are heralded as works of art. One of the greatest pieces of world literature, inspired by the theology and ideology of Thomistic philosophy. An epic poem allegorically representing the human soul, artistically embellishing moral principles. Art educates. Art guides. Art inspires. Its igniting iconography beckoning the most simplistic of powers that both intimidate and stimulate. Fascism. Communism. Christianity. Humanity surrounds itself in symbolic art. Why? Do images represent more ideals than literature? Do masterpieces evoke cultural significance? While these all apply, the answer is far simpler. Art transcends time.
Von Trier, arguably the most provocative auteur in cinema today, assimilates that ethos by likening the depiction of Inferno to a psychopathic serial killer. Jack, with all his artistic constitutions, murders an ill-mannered woman whom rudely demanded her vehicle be repaired. Jack, ironically, slaughters her with a jack, stores her body in a freezer and rapidly unleashes a pessimistic perspective upon the world. Narratively constructed through five pivotal incidents and an epilogue, von Trier crafts a titillating psychological horror that endeavours to illustrate insight into the mind of a serial killer and provide political subtext apt for today’s violent society. Without revealing the core contents of Jack’s illicit shenanigans, this feature truly is a gruesome ordeal meant to polarise its audience. The unsettling imagery, from homemade breast removals to shooting children at a hunting range, and audacious editing are purposefully manufactured to provoke. It’s two and a half hour runtime is solely built to exasperate, yet provide an equally stimulating message.
Each incident that von Trier bravely embeds, heightens the characterisation of Jack as a serial killer. The realistic charming anonymity he presides in, as he lures unknowing women to his spacious red van, produces a perceptive antagonistic aura that almost feels existent. A contagious allurement that turns this sadistic creature into an approachable human. Charismatically, Jack is portrayed by Dillon whom of which returns to the screen with an outrageously deceptive performance harking back to Bale’s universally acclaimed role in ‘American Psycho’. The tongue-in-cheek delivery of von Trier’s dialogue grants an ostentatious yet equally personable appeal to Jack, and that’s without mentioning Dillon’s stoically creepy posture and mannerisms. Small details such as the analysis of OCD during a murder and psychopathic insight into political undertones, especially with lines such as “Nobody wants to help!”. Dare I say, Dillon makes a scarily pragmatic serial killer? Well, I’ve said it now!
The real cusp of ingenuity though, exudes from Ganz’ narration, whom portrays an incarnation of the poet Virgil. In between each incident, Jack and “Verge” philosophise certain theories as to why Jack slaughtered all his victims. Almost resembling a confession scenario. However, it’s Verge’s neutrality when interrogating Jack that provides evocative meaning to the purpose of von Trier’s polarising methods. For example, querying Jack’s superiority as he murders women who “strike him as seriously unintelligent”. It explores the mind of a deranged soul in a creative religious light.
However, much like art itself, its contents borders on pretentiousness. The violent incidents themselves are filmed with enough panache to elevate the simplistic material. The conversations that link them together, edited with embedded clips of contemporary instructional paintings (the architecture of cathedrals, shadows of pain between lamp posts etc.) and images of acclaimed paintings to symbolise cultural impact upon modern society, are rarely subtle. They are, incredibly, aggressive. Both in nature and in execution. Bowie’s ‘Fame’ and the repetitious depiction of farmers scything in a synchronous manner were effective once. To consistently repeat the same motive, which consequently diminishes the allegorical violence, proved to be ineffective and most importantly pretentious. The greatest masterpieces transcend time due to the finer details. Subtlety is everything. The brutality against women also exceeded its stay, with graphic scenes conveying Jack’s supposedly superior masculinity. As a side note, the third incident involving a family at a hunting range was distasteful. Oh, and the duckling. Granted, these are personal qualms, but mentioned regardless for those cautious by such controversial imagery.
As uncompromising as Dante’s Inferno, The House That Jack Built constructed an unsettling link between infamous iconography and guilt-free violence. Satirising audacious ordeals by injecting vivid dialogue that welcomes sadism. Whilst von Trier may have overstepped the mark on several occasions and pretentiously inundated the film in authoritarian commentary, its shock factor will evoke your inner perversive side. Or, you’ll plunge the depths of hell trying to retrieve lost time. Polarising art as always from von Trier! Wouldn’t have it any other way...