Before I’ll talk about The House that Jack Built I want to share two anecdotes. The first about a viewing of Good Manners. This film was promoted as a social critique, a story about a mother’s love, a touch of musical and maybe, just maybe also horror but! but! not to worry, a super sweet horror. While this promotion is quite correct if you are used to watching horror, it is definitely not true for people who never watch the genre. After the first blood thirsty scene a couple of women sniffed simultaneously, stood up, and walked out in that brisk morally appalled pace.
The second anecdote happened during an introduction of a concert. ‘Like Glenn Gould,’ the spokesperson said and he laughed. We, the audience, laughed too. Obviously. Glenn Gould, that little special snowflake genius.
The House that Jack Built; isn’t it all really about Lars von Trier? This seems to be the general opinion. Gaspar Noé (director of Climax) thinks so too, but also comments that The House is the funniest movie that Von Trier has made so far. In an interview Von Trier himself said that he needed to come up with something fast because things weren’t going great for his production company Zentropa. So he needed something simple and something that people find fascinating. A serial killer. Not that he himself finds that so interesting, but women do. At least the women he knows. They all have at least ten books about serial killers.
The House that Jack Built is about Jack. A serial killer who kills to make art or maybe better said, he ends up making art with his kills. He is more or less forced into killing after being endlessly called a serial killer by an entitled lady hitch-hiker. The moment she says he would never be able to be a real serial killer he kills her. With a jack.
Walking Out of the Best Scene
Walking out because the movie is too violent seems strange in this case, except if you are not used to horror like the women I mentioned earlier. However, this movie was promoted as extremely violent and it was not. Violence wasn’t why people walked out, it had to be that other component: being morally appalled.
The incident about Simple/Jacqueline is in my opinion the best part of the movie and the one where most people walked out. In this scene the comedy elements (the entire movie has a lot of comedy tropes and pacing) actually work in a horrifying way. Jack introduces this incident as being about the girl he was closest to love.
Misogyny according to the people who left. Why watch more violence against women? Von Trier has lost his heart, his capacity to feel, he hates women. The times of Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark are over.
Apart from actually awful to watch, the scene with Jacqueline/Simple thematisizes violence against women. Why is it easier for us to watch women being treated badly in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark? They are treated badly but they are saints, martyrs. In The House that Jack Built Jack says that women are innocent. Victims. Women are nice, they are easier to work with. (As Jack says, to defend them against remarks that they seem kind of stupid to let themselves be killed so easily.) Men are the culprits. It is hard to be a man, says Jack with a sad face. The entire meta dialogue is set up.
In the actual scene Jacqueline is indeed nice, but she isn’t saintly. Jack lives in her house. He tells her he is the serial killer. He calls her Simple. She doesn’t like to be called that. ‘Why do you always call me that? I don’t like it.’ But she lets him. She darts happily around like the animated sheep after he says something semi-nice. And he loves her breasts. She gets the pen for him to draw dotted circles around them. Not a good sign when a serial kiler does that. Isn’t Jack right to call her Simple? Is that what makes it so hard to watch? That she could have known? That she should have known? That sometimes women let themselves be treated badly in their own homes. That being the victim is sometimes a choice, a bad choice, a stupid choice but a choice. And isn’t that in the end more complicated but also more hopeful than being a saint. Blameless but also completely unable to change the situation?
Also his first kill was inspired by a nagging woman.
And women Von Trier knows all read about serial killer.
Glenn Gould Meta Meta
The House that Jack built opens in the dark. People walking. Call me Verge. Yes, you can talk, most people do, just don’t believe you’re going to tell me something I haven’t heard before. Wait. Verge? Walking together? Is this hell? Like a good girl I happily concluded that Verge might be Dante’s Virgil. Oh yes, the smell of sulphur! But soon enough my happiness left. Because there were so many references. Lectures. About Blake, about art, decay, architecture. Animated sheep darting on the screen. An endless curriculum of arty topics. And Glenn Gould, of course he was there too.
Jack tells Verge about his most memorable kills, or incidents as they are called. Contrary to Von Triers statement that he needed a film that made money fast so serial killer it was, he has has said that he had been working on a series about serial killers for over eight years. This makes some sense, because the incidents could also have worked in an unrelated way and probably better. The incident about the killer’s OCD is funny. Another incident has choreographed dance-like slapstick. The last incidents also use the tropes and the timing of comedy.
But also the constant breaks on art, bombs, Glenn Gould, sheep etc.
And failed attempts to build a house.
And why did he fall in the end? Did he escape hell?
It is not a meta movie, it is a meta meta movie. It is a constant reflection on and reference to everything. Like the nursery rhyme ‘The House that Jack Built’ (that he has used before), it is about everything except the house or Jack.
It reminded me a bit of The Idiots, when they all decided to act like idiots. Which is fine behind closed doors, but what happens if you act like that around people who don’t know it was planned. What happens if you continue acting like an idiot when nobody knows what’s up?
To end in style I will add more references. The House that Jack Built is the third time a movie is made with this title. The first one (1900) is about a boy that breaks the brick house his sister (!) made, then the movie reverses itself halfway so the brick house is built up again. The second one (1967) is an animated movie. Jack is first a man that built a house like everyone else, but then he steals a golden mirror.