Lars von Trier on The House That Jack Built

Controversial director Lars von Trier is back and back on form with knowing serial killer picture The House That Jack Built. We speak to the Danish auteur about film violence, alcoholism and the dark hole left by David Bowie's early death

Feature by Philip Concannon | 10 Dec 2018

It felt like something was missing when Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac was released in 2014. The director’s extravagant two-part epic following the adventures of a sex addict contained plenty of provocative ideas and images, but a key ingredient in the von Trier experience was lacking; namely the hysterical Cannes reaction – a heady combination of adulation and outrage – that usually accompanies the first appearance of his work. Von Trier was branded as persona non grata at the festival following comments he made about admiring Hitler (in jest, he subsequently insisted) during a press conference for Melancholia in 2011, but this year he was welcomed back into the fold and, of course, he instantly became the talk of the town once again.

The House That Jack Built is von Trier’s portrait of a serial killer, with Jack (a chillingly detached Matt Dillon) recounting his life through five ‘incidents’ in which he viciously tortures and kills women, children and even a helpless duckling. (Don’t worry, PETA have given Lars the thumbs-up for this scene.) The sadistic violence caused a steady stream of walkouts from the film’s premiere screening, a fact that was gleefully reported by the press, while those that remained gave von Trier a resounding ovation. The director seemed to take all of this fuss in his stride. “I wouldn't say that I'm unsatisfied that 300 left during the screening in Cannes,” he said during our recent Skype conversation. “I'm afraid it's a little exaggerated, but no, as long as enough people stay to make it possible for me to make the next film.” Despite the film’s brutality, von Trier insists he didn’t anticipate such a vociferous reaction. “I thought that this time there couldn't be anything provoking because even in Cannes I've seen much more violent films than this. So yeah, I must have done something wrong… or right.”

Uma Thurman and Matt Dillon in The House That Jack Built

Whether you fall into the right or wrong camp will probably depend largely on how you feel about von Trier and his work in general. The House That Jack Built is cruel and bleak, but it’s also a film made with a macabre sense of humour and a keen awareness of its own absurdity. In many respects, it feels like a companion piece to Nymphomaniac, once again examining the life of a compulsive and unrepentant individual through a series of representative episodes, each more outrageous than the last and often being interrupted by discursive conversations about esoteric subjects. The main difference between the two is the fact that von Trier has substituted male violence for female sexuality as the central theme; in fact this constitutes a drastic departure for the director, whose work for the past three decades has been primarily focused on women.

“The films I've done with female characters had this goodness clinging to them, and Jack is not good,” von Trier says. “He is evil. I heard Scorsese say that in the beginning he made films about psychopaths that were in conflict with the normal society, and today he makes films about normal people that are in conflict with the psychopathic society, so I've gone back to front. It was really fun to write because it is so unpredictable what this guy was going to say, and I believe that the psychopath will always believe in himself when others would have given up long ago. He can get away with three different explanations outside the door of this woman when he's trying to get into her house.”

"Somehow I can forgive all the other deaths of artists, but Bowie... I cannot, I cannot" – Lars von Trier

Does von Trier still believe in himself? The once-brash provocateur cuts a much less abrasive figure these days. His speech is often hesitant and filled with pauses, and it is clear that some rough years – involving periods of depression and alcoholism – have taken their toll. The House That Jack Built contains a number of semi-autobiographical hints and parallels, prompting speculation that the film could be read as a kind of final artistic statement from the 62-year-old von Trier, particularly as he includes a montage of his own work at one point. “The idea was that these should be the films that I loved," he explains, "but that was far too expensive. So then I said, 'what the fuck, we have the rights to these films'.” He insists that he has not thought of calling time on his career prematurely. “You never know what your last movie is, it's certainly not planned to be the last, but then again if David Bowie can die at 69 then maybe there are not so many films left.”

In conversation, von Trier is as prone to digressions as his recent films have been, and the mention of Bowie is one of the few times he becomes really animated. Breaking the Waves and Dogville made iconic use of Bowie’s Life on Mars and Young Americans respectively, and von Trier makes Fame Jack’s anthem in his new film, as he commits elaborate murders and seeks recognition as ‘Mr Sophistication.’ Bowie’s death in 2016 was a bitter blow for many of us, and von Trier is still reeling. “I still feel betrayed somehow,” he says. “He's from Mars, you know, and they don't die on Mars. Somehow I can forgive all the other deaths of artists, but Bowie... I cannot, I cannot. I listened a lot to him, especially when I was younger, and it's kind of wrong that he's dead.”

One of the most resonant sequences in The House That Jack Built is an animated interlude that depicts a man walking between streetlights, the shadow in front of him shortening as he walks and the one behind him lengthening. Jack uses this metaphor to explain his emotional state between killings, the shadow in front representing the pleasure of accomplishment, which recedes as the shadow of anxiety and depression behind him grows, until he needs to kill again. “I have had an alcohol problem so I must say that it could be a bottle that is waiting for me at the next lamp, but I'm fighting it with a lot of meetings,” von Trier says. It’s clear that filmmaking offers von Trier a vital form of release and catharsis, but it’s also a process he finds incredibly hard and draining to go through. While the act of making a new work offers some satisfaction, it introduces another layer of anxiety into his life.

“Editing is nice, and sound making and mixing. All of that is nice. To write is also fun. It's just that I'm afraid that I can't be physically there. I'm sure I'll get ill or something and then I've left behind 100 collaborators who cannot do anything. I'm a little afraid of the duty.” Plans are already forming for a new project called Études, a series of experimental black-and-white short films that will take place in a controlled environment, but when will we see the next Lars von Trier feature? Can this great artist find a way to bring his unique vision to cinema while maintaining a sense of emotional and mental equilibrium? It’s a difficult balance to strike, but he’s trying. “Right now I have a comfort zone in my home and I feel best there, so maybe I should do the whole film from a monitor back here,” he suggests. “Then I would be happy.”

The House That Jack Built is released 14 Dec by Curzon