The portrait of a psychopathic artist in 'The House that Jack Built'

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In a comedy key, the last film by Lars von Trier shows different episodes in the life of Jack, an American serial killer who always get away with murder

The portrait of a psychopathic artist in 'The House that Jack Built'

We love murder movies. From the saga of Hannibal Lectern, through Seven or The Zodiac, to the oversupply of documentaries and series about murderers that Netflix has in its library, we have become obsessed with the figure of someone who kills another human, sometimes with a cold head, sometimes for the rage of a moment. And Lars von Trier knows it.

Leer en español: El retrato de un artista psicópata en 'La casa de Jack'

That he knows is not a curious fact, but a dangerous weapon in the hands of the one who was banned from the Cannes Festival for making jokes about Nazis in the 2012 edition, when his film Melancholia was being projected in the official competition. The return of von Trier in last year's edition, as expected, caused controversy. On the one hand, there are approximately 100 people who left the show with indignation or boredom; on the other, there are the huge ovations at the end of the movie.

Similar reactions happened when I saw the movie, of course at the scale of a small movie theater. About 10 people left in the middle, in the chapter in which Jack murders some children in front of their mother, almost affirming with his walk "With the children, no, please!", Something that was not repeated with the great act of misogyny, the mutilation of a breast, in the next chapter. "At the end, laughing, yawning and people uncovering their eyes, the audience came out with anxiety and without looking at each other faces.

A confession of a murderer in a comedy key

'The House that Jack Built' is the story of Jack (Matt Dillon), the stereotype of the white American of the north and the psychopath with glasses and obsessive-compulsive problems. A man named Verge (Bruno Ganz) is reported as a confession of crimes, who eventually reveals that he is Virgil, the Roman poet who guides Dante through hell. In the five random 'incidents' that he narrates, we come to know how Jack is the figure of evil that has no limits, nor self-imposed nor marked by society.

Contrary to the constant moral criticism to which this character could be subject, von Trier chooses mockery as a mechanism for narrating the murders that this man commits, a few of the more than 60 he claims to have committed. Thus, from the first incident, we see the clumsiness of the character and the women who he decides to kill, a sign of the constant misogyny on stage. The first woman, apparently her first murder, was one she found stranded in the middle of the road. After he agreed to take her, she starts to joke about he looks like a serial killer, that if he wanted to kill her, he should not have done that or be seen by such a person. Finally, following the typical script for reasons why someone is a psychopath, Jack hits her with a cat to lift cars after she makes fun of her weakness.

Thus, von Trier shows us different episodes of the most direct violence, at the level of mutilations, blood, and insults, while using the fast camera or music of the eighties just after the murder to make us laugh at the lack of control of Jack. This laughter comes not only from the effect of certain cinematic resources, but also from how Jack's murders are the most improbable, both because of the way he decides to kill, and because of his way of taking the bodies to the freezer where he "collects" them.

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Violence and aesthetics

Parallel to the comedy, the film is also constructed from the figure of the murderer as the artist. Jack is also an engineer with architectural delusions who plans to build his perfect house at the intervals of his murders. Then, as we witness his killings, he also explains his theory of art, of perfection as a justification for any act. Besides, after clarifying that it is not religious, he gives reason to his murderous attitude based on the metaphor of William Blake on the lamb and the tiger, the Christian epitome of the hunter and prey mentality.

This aspect of the work gives us to think about what are limits of art, even more, when dealing with controversial issues such as the killing of children and the mutilation of women. Beyond reproving or accepting theories such as art for art or that art does not need justification, I consider that the work, however fictional it may be, must be justified in the public (the political) field. Thus, it is not a question of judging von Trier about hyperviolent scenes, but of analyzing in which context the film was projected.

Yes, in Cannes it generated controversy, but it is necessary to bear in mind that it is a Cannes in the era of #metoo and politically correct that it has taken works from museums, or censored in some way, such as the pictures of Malthus girls in the Moma. Even so, that is not the disturbing reception, but that of an ordinary public in a country, say white Americans under the presidency of Trump, to give an example, to see the film and feel justified (or empowered? ) to perform similar acts and not in a fictional plane.

It is in this context that the screening of the film must be subject to moral judgment, not because of the images it presents, but because of the dangerous reactions it may generate. It is worth remembering that after the premiere of the Mechanical Orange, the cup of vandalism in England was considerably increased, so much so that Kubrick had to tell Warner Bros. to stop projecting it.

Probably with 'The House that Jack Built' something similar does not happen, as much for its mocking tone as for the hyper-intellectualization with which it builds the character, but equally the film does not escape to put this debate on the table.


LatinAmerican Post | Juan Gabriel Bocanegra

Translated from "El retrato de un artista psicópata en 'La casa de Jack'"