If there is someone in Scandinavian cinema, whose name is associated with trouble, then it’s Lars von Trier. Nazi wannabe, misogynist, sadist, he is considered the ‘enfant terrible’ of Nordic and even European cinema. Always the attention seeker, he is probably satisfied with this fame, which got him suspended from the Cannes Film Festival, but also kept his name in the news of the cinematic world for quite a while. Still, the attacks of the critics, puritans, and others must have been hard to swallow throughout the years because his latest films have become not only outrageous but also defensive.
Probably all great directors experience times of self-doubt, caused by negative reviews, the lack of inspiration, or compromises that have ruined great ideas. Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and many other masters of art cinema put their fears and doubts in some of their films, and by becoming vulnerable and opening up to a judging audience, they created masterpieces.
Unfortunately, the case with Lars von Trier is not the same. Instead of questioning himself, he chooses the path of defending his art and is trying to teach his critics a lesson. Instead of doubting his recent films, he puts up a fight with the audience by creating characters, who try to change the world according to their wrong ethical standards and assumes Raskolnikov’s position of being superior enough not to have to conform to the others’ fake morals.
Joe’s character in Nymphomaniac can be seen as Trier’s female alter ego. A bold woman who seeks her own pleasure at the cost of breaking families, abandoning children, and becoming part of the criminal world. Yet her individualism somehow compensates for her egoism, and even if we cannot relate to her, she is hard to blame. After all, all she wants is ‘something more than the sunset’, and who wouldn’t want that?
Some people view Seligman, her partner in conversation, as her antagonist. He can be a personification of Trier’s critics – well-educated bourgeois who can see only the cultural context of events rather than experiencing himself. But, I think, Seligman is a different version of Trier, one that only wants to observe art and life, and gives context to it. And no matter what Seligman stands for, he deserves to die. And here comes Jack…
The House That Jack Built starts a new line in Trier’s art. For the first time in decades, he uses a male protagonist and directs a film that is not part of a trilogy. The story is about an engineer who wants to be an architect, and being unable to build a house, becomes a serial killer. There are only a few scenes featuring the house of the title, and we are rarely reminded about Jack’s creative quests. If Joe in Nymphomaniac stands for Trier as opposed to society, then Jack comes as its butcher.
There is just too much of Trier’s own personality in Jack not to make the connection of the character being his alter ego on the hunt for those simple stupid victims who do not understand him. There is the strong OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), the need to make sense of senseless incidents, the organization of events in a segment structure, and even a scene where Joe talks about art and Trier’s own films are shown in the background.
Just as Jack is struggling to build the house, Trier seems unable to build his artistic legacy. Being the only important person in the film, Jack has no moral counterbalance. Society turns its back on his crimes, and maybe this is how Trier feels about his provocative films – not being acknowledged enough.
During the first four incidents, Jack kills women. The degree of his brutality rises from the murder of an annoying woman who literally asks for it, through an unknown lady who just happens to be naive enough to let strangers in and a mother and her kids signifying no moral boundaries, to his own girlfriend, leaving no room for love or any other personal feelings. Since Trier is considered misogynistic, the violence against women is not surprising, but he is even more brutal towards men. The men in his vision do not deserve to be murdered one by one, so he cuts this short by attempting to kill all six of them with one bullet only.
Like the house that never gets built, the film has a door that has never been open. Jack’s death leads to resolving both cases. His house becomes the bodies of his victims, the people personally affected by his art, and he finally got to see what is behind the door – a man, called Verge, (or Virgil from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy), who is also Jack’s conscience. For Jack, there is no purgatory, he goes straight to hell, and so does the film, some will say.
Verge is not judgmental and shows understanding regarding Jack’s deeds guiding him through the levels of the Inferno. According to Trier, maybe the film critics should be the same…