The House That Jack Built
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

There would be no press conference. That much was agreed upon in advance, probably by all parties involved. After all, the last time Lars von Trier sat down for a little Q&A at Cannes—this was back in 2011, to talk about Melancholia—he ended up causing quite the stir, joking (?) about identifying with Hitler and getting himself banned from the festival that had been premiering his work since basically the start. Can you even imagine what he might be asked in 2018, and how he might answer? But von Trier doesn’t need a microphone to push people’s buttons. His movies often accomplish that lofty goal all on their lonesome—especially as they’ve increasingly come to operate like a microphone plugged directly into his brain, filling whole auditoriums with his private thoughts and anxieties, the sometimes ugly things floating around in there.

I wasn’t among the dressed-to-the-nines throngs who caught von Trier’s new film—screened out of competition, perhaps to let Lars know he was still on probation—at Monday night’s big premiere in the Lumière. But I heard plenty about the experience: how, for starters, the filmmaker’s entrance, his return to the stage after seven years in exile, was met with five whole minutes of standing ovation, everyone apparently forgiving and/or forgetting what got the Danish director kicked out in the first place, to say nothing of recent allegations hanging over him. Were those cheering also among the dozens who stormed out of the theater an hour or so later, appalled by images of murder, torture, and mutilation? I couldn’t help but think of last year’s big Cannes winner, The Square, and its centerpiece scene of supposed art lovers realizing that maybe they didn’t like having their comfort zones breached as much as they thought they did.

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The violence, I discovered the next morning, was a little less extreme than some had made out. (This wasn’t another Antichrist.) But The House That Jack Built (Grade: C+) is disturbing and sometimes repellant, and not just for the fact that von Trier, a reliably unsparing agitator, has tackled that most grimly fascinating of real-life bogeymen, the serial killer. Equating murder with artistic creation (a very old parallel, to be honest), The House That Jack Built functions, too, as a kind of response to the major criticisms often lobbed against his work, including (and perhaps especially) the charges of misogyny. The film lands somewhere between self-flagellation and apologia; however hard von Trier is on himself, he’s not above mounting defenses, and he spares plenty of punishment for us, too.

Matt Dillon, skin-crawlingly effective, plays the title character, an architect who moonlights as a vicious killer, stuffing the bodies of his random victims in a red van, storing them in an abandoned meat locker, and eventually arranging them in elaborate tableau. Over the course of the movie, he’ll recount five “incidents” from his storied career in “murders and executions,” to quote another American psycho, Patrick Bateman. These anecdotes are introduced through offscreen conversations with an unseen confidante voiced by Bruno Ganz—a structural device that recalls von Trier’s last film, the four- to five-hour opus Nymphomaniac, to which House is a clear companion piece. It was easy to read that film, with its multiple allusions to past work, as an imaginary conversation between von Trier and his critics. (If sex was a metaphor for filmmaking, then who could Stellan Skarsgård’s virginal Seligman be but the non-filmmaker daring to form big opinions about something he’s never done?) Here, it’s more like von Trier is arguing with himself, locking us into a debate between his ego and his self-loathing, his confidence and his self-doubt.

The House That Jack Built
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

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Some of this works as the darkest of dark comedy. One early scene finds Jack, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder, returning again and again to the living room of a stranger he’s strangled to death, delaying his clean getaway in order to compulsively scan the scene of the crime, checking and double-checking for blood stains. (His brazen insistence that the police officer who eventually shows up thoroughly examine the room plays like a parody of that cliché of serial killers begging to be caught.) But The House That Jack Built can also be as upsetting as any extreme thriller, especially during its grotesque, matter-of-fact kill scenes. Even if all of the bloodshed is a metaphor, the characters don’t know that; von Trier does not abstract their terror and pain, any more than he did Nicole Kidman’s trauma in the great Dogville, very real against the Brechtian fakeness of the backdrop.

But The House That Jack Built gets lost in own inner dialogue. On the issue of misogyny, it feels confessional and evasive. When Ganz’s foil character, Verge, points out that Jack seems only to kill women, the latter is quick to insist he kills men, too—a reworded variation on the common defense that von Trier is equal-opportunity in his cruelty. But what is one to make of the choice to portray all the female victims as dolts whose stupidity gets them killed? Jack is, quite transparently, a proxy for the director—there are literal excerpts of von Trier’s other movies, just in case anyone missed that. When, in the film’s most repulsive scene, he parrots the aggrieved talking points of men’s-rights types before committing a grisly atrocity, are we to take that as a self-critique, a cultural one, or both? The fact that the film’s fictional world is often indifferent to the violence, even ignoring bloodcurdling screams for help, lands like a deflection: “Sure, my films can be tough on women, but that’s to make the point that no one cares about violence against women in real life!”

One is left wondering whether any of von Trier’s endless, agonizing self-reflection justifies the often tediously unpleasant experience of watching The House That Jack Built. Isn’t it a kind of trolling to confront the most controversial, challenged aspects of your art by cranking them to 11? Is von Trier having his cake, force-feeding it to us, and hand-wringing about it, too? He’s turned his therapeutic navel-gazing into an endurance test, one that questions but also very clearly entertains the rationale that making omelettes requires breaking a few eggs. You hope, if nothing else, that the results make for a satisfying meal. The House That Jack Built too often isn’t.

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Under The Silver Lake
Photo: Cannes Film Festival

This is only the third year I’ve covered Cannes, but I still have a potential favorite memory from the festival: crowding into a small hotel theater down the street from the Palais some four years ago for a screening of a scary and conceptually ingenious new thriller playing in the sidebar fest Critics’ Week. It spooked me, it beguiled me, it left me with questions: Wasn’t this guy’s last film a gentle indie riff on Dazed And Confused? Where was he hiding these supreme chops? And why had no one ever thought to spin a whole horror movie on that unshakable feeling that you’re being followed? It Follows wouldn’t solidify in my mind as a new genre classic until I caught it again a few months later. But the craftsmanship was clear immediately. The bright future ahead for the craftsman, too.

This year, said craftsman, David Robert Mitchell, has returned to Cannes but graduated to the big leagues, his It Follows follow-up earning a spot in the festival proper’s main competition. And while Under The Silver Lake (Grade: B) isn’t as primally effective as its predecessor, that’s because Mitchell is taking a big swing with his third feature, trying something not just new but also more unconventional, ambitious, and even potentially off-putting. Leaving his native suburban Michigan behind for an equally but not identically dreamlike Los Angeles, Mitchell adopts the basic shape of a shaggy L.A. noir, i.e., The Long Goodbye or Inherent Vice, but blurs its edges with a vaguely unsettling surrealism, goosed by a terrific throwback score. Sam (Andrew Garfield), shiftless and broke and not especially likable, somehow snags the attention of his new bombshell neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough, who has a couple horrific scenes in the von Trier). She then disappears overnight, sending the already highly suggestible Sam into a roundabout, obsessive amateur investigation involving subliminal messages, hidden codes, a missing movie producer, underground tunnels, a string of canine slayings, and a fabled, moth-masked assassin that allows Mitchell to briefly play again with the goosebump-provoking power of an encroaching, spectral-like threat.

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There are times when Under The Silver Lake feels a little random in its plotting. Certainly, this is not an airtight or even especially urgent mystery. It’s more into tangents and mood and why-not curveballs; if the model is the stoner gumshoe movie, Mitchell is more into ditch-weed paranoia than loopiness. His major stroke of genius is to see a specifically Los Angeles anxiety in the descent into wild conspiracy theory: Anchored to an indifferent city, with no idea how he’s even going to make rent, Sam searches for clues in numbers and records just to give the universe—and by extension, his own dead-end life—some sense of secret meaning. The pervasive but almost offhand menace is supplied by Mitchell’s impeccable, widescreen mise-en-scène; the ordinary dread he locates in an unglamorous, mundane L.A.; and the way even the film’s comedy seems perched on the edge of unease. As for Garfield’s boho makeshift sleuth, he remains an uncomfortably unheroic hero, prone to lecherous spying on his neighbors with binoculars and unnerving fits of rage, as when he beats the shit out of a couple preteen kids egging cars in his neighborhood. One thinks, perhaps, of In A Lonely Place, with Humphrey Bogart engulfed by the rage and madness of the city. Mitchell’s L.A. is less glamorous than Nicholas Ray’s, but no less seductively unknowable.

Tomorrow: For some reason, I traveled all the way to France to see a Ron Howard Stars Wars movie. Some brief thoughts on that (our full review is up now), plus new films from Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah, Reality) and Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Secret Sunshine).