The Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has coped with depression, alcoholism and a fairly justifiable persecution complex for years now. In 2011 he shot his mouth off at the Cannes Film Festival, joking about Hitler and Nazis and Jews, and was promptly declared persona non grata by festival officials. He returned to Cannes last year with his latest work, "The House that Jack Built," a tedious picture about a remorseless serial killer, played by Matt Dillon.
We watch this man, trained as an engineer and an architect, going through life wearing Robin Williams' untrustworthy eyeglasses from "One Hour Photo." His explanation of self is divided into five discrete "incidents," separate and grisly killings.
In voiceover, and then after the characters emerge on screen, we listen to Jack debate matters of artistic temperament and the existence of hell with "Verge" (Bruno Ganz), an incarnation of the poet Virgil. They are in hell. The narrative periodically brakes for snippets of archival footage of Glenn Gould at the piano.
In one flashback incident, Uma Thurman plays a royally pushy stranded motorist, just begging to be murdered. In another, Riley Keough is Jack's lover, "Simple," whose breasts Jack admires, and then mutilates. The bodies of Jack's victims pile up in a refrigerated warehouse. "The House That Jack Built" grinds on, and it may be the dullest film about serial killing in the history of dull movies about serial killers.
Jack treats each new murder scenario as performance art, an artistic creation coming from an honest, if psychopathic, artistic impulse. He slaughters a mother and two children in a field in one sequence, echoing "The Most Dangerous Game." After the killing, he arranges the corpses just so and photographs his victims. He's a control-freak of a filmmaker, in other words.
Periodically Jack is seen in riffs on Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" music video. He signs his photos of the murder scenes "Mr. Sophistication." Verge, the Virgil stand-in, confronts Jack in the underworld, but Jack is wily; his imagination may be lazily sadistic, but he can talk his way out of most rhetorical corners. (He gasses on and on; the film's theatrical cut, which is rated R, runs a tick over two-and-a-half-hours.)
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Up until now, I've had a wildly conflicted relationship to von Trier's work, which isn't all like "The House That Jack Built." The first half of "Antichrist," prior to the outlandishly explicit and aggressively stupid half (far rougher than anything here), is some kind of masterwork -- a subversive satiric allegory about a smug man who believes he can "cure" his wife's problems, and who learns better.
The classically paced grandeur of "Melancholia," von Trier's end-of-the-world picture, lays a series of beautiful shrouds onto its narrative frame. "Dancer in the Dark" is a brutal musical, to say the least, crudely punishing, but also a true and anguished experience. "The Boss of It All" is remarkably funny, a bleaker version of "The Office" with a temperament all its own.
"Dogville," a couple of others -- you may resist or even detest them, but they're not dismissable. "The House That Jack Built" is dismissible. It's hardly anything, signifying nothing. It sees the world as a pitiless charnel house and, in that, it resembles dozens or hundreds of other films, some of them brilliant, all of them made by other filmmakers.
Jack equates the Holocaust death camps with perverse, ghoulish performance art, and at that point, when historical footage of the shoveled, piled bodies flashed on screen, I thought: This is banal as well as offensive. The banality of offensiveness unrelated to seriousness.