Guest Post Film Review: ‘The House That Lars Built’ by Joshua Moulinie

the house that jack built

Lars Von Trier is a divisive figure in the world of cinema. To some, like myself, he’s one of the last remaining true mavericks; a trailblazing tour-de-force unapologetically ready to delve into the minds of some of humanity’s darkest characters, with a style that is completely his own. To others, he is the Milo Yiannopoulis of cinema; a brash, crude, in-your-face filmmaker who delights in provoking and pushing boundaries for the sake of it. Regardless of which side of this argument you sit on, one thing cannot be denied: Lars Von Trier films are unique to him -only he could possibly make them – and every one of them is a cinematic event that cannot be missed by anybody with a remote interest in cinema as an artform.
The House That Jack Built is, for better or worse, definitively a Lars Von Trier film. Notice there that I didn’t say ‘a film by Lars Von Trier’. Frankly, this film is so unbelievably Lars, that at times I was wondering if Lars has either become completely obnoxious, or so self-aware of himself that he’s begun to perform a kind of twisted self-parody, and the first thirty minutes do almost feel as though I am watching an expensive student project satirising the works of Lars Von Trier. Every single one his staples is there: The narrative being delivered by the central character to a listener, the film being split into chapters, jump-cuts, comparisons to art and culture, and the explanation of true evil, and how society is to blame. Classic Lars, almost to a fault. In many ways this feels like an extension of what began in The Nymphomaniac, just delivered in a way that is slightly less satisfying.
The writing is, for the most part, wonderful, but there is a lot of repetition of both dialogue and philosophical musings, to the point of almost annoyance, and I’m still not entirely sure the film needed to be two and a half hours long, and could perhaps have done with half an hour being trimmed. On the other hand, taking his time with each segment, or ‘incident’, as Jack calls it, gives Von Trier time to build tension and atmosphere, making each kill less a gratuitous and cathartic event, like a Tarantino movie, and more of a dark and disturbing event, which amplifies the remembrance that violence is in the real world. We watch, helpless to intervene, as the tension builds, and each scene reaches an almost farcically dark conclusion. However, there are times when you wonder if Lars could just calm down and stop repeating himself.
The lion and lamb analogy, for example, must be mentioned over fifteen times throughout the runtime. It makes you wonder if Lars is almost reaching Hollywood levels of condescending his audience, by suggesting that we could not possibly figure out what this twisted genius is trying to say. It does get a bit annoying after a while, and the conversation between Jack and Verge (more on him later) can become a bit too in-your-face and on-the-nose with its commentary on events.
That said, it is fascinating to see the development in the relationship between the two, as Verge seems at first prepared for anything Jack will throw at him ‘Most people feel the need to confess at this point, but you won’t be telling me anything I haven’t heard before’, and does actually shrug off the first two murders by Jack. Eventually, as Jack slips further into depravity and genuinely psychopathic territory, Verge becomes disgusted by his behaviour, and refers to him as ‘the most depraved man I have ever met’.
Which, it must be said, he very may well be. Too often in cinema psychopaths are glorified and become almost cult-like figures adored by the masses. Think of Hannibal Lector or Patrick Batemen, two deplorable and horrific characters who commit atrocious acts, but are almost cheered and revered among fans of cinema. The idolisation of figures such as Ted Bundy, and our culture’s fascination with these people in general, make it easy to fall into the trap of rooting for them. But not Jack.
Not in the hands of Von Trier. Here we see the truly nasty and despicable side of a person without empathy or human warmth, without care or interest in anybody or anything but himself. We see truly disturbing scenes that will stay with you for days afterwards – the picnic scene in particularly is truly horrific – and we see the portrait of a man lost so deeply in his own narcissism and lack of empathy, that he barely even qualifies as a human being. This is the serial killer movie the world has been waiting for and needs.
Lars also has some, let’s say, interesting things to say about the link between misogyny and psychopathy. For example, during one particularly harrowing scene, Jack stops and delivers a speech that reads ‘You know, there is something that has been bothering Mr. Sophistication for quite a bit. And perhaps it’s more interesting to him than it would be to you. But to be honest, he’s pretty fucking pissed when he thinks about it. Why is it always the man’s fault? No matter where you go, it’s like you’re some sort of wandering guilty person without even having harmed a simple kitten. I actually get sad when I think about it. If one is so unfortunate as to have been born… male, then you’re also born guilty. Think of the injustice in that. Women are always the victims, right? And men, they’re always the criminals.’

Honestly, after having watched it twice, I’m still somewhat at a loss as to what exactly Von Trier is trying to say here. Is he arguing that this contemporary attack on masculinity will just lead to more Jacks? Is he trying to argue that people like Jack will use this narrative to excuse deplorable behaviour? It’s certainly clear that he’s trying to say something of note, but it’s never made entirely clear.
Which is how I feel about most of the film. Usually, it’s pretty transparent and obvious what a director is trying to state. On this occasion, the lines are murkier. It was, personally, the only thing that Jack said throughout the entire run-time that resonated with me. The only time his mad, philosophical justifications actually made sense.

Now, before moving on the conclusion, let me take a paragraph to speak about the ending. SPOILER ALERT. In the end, Jack seemingly goes to hell, as the link between Verge and Virgil clicks in your mind, and you understand that this entire time he has been conversing with the iconic guide through hell from Dante’s infamous work The Inferno. And it is absolutely fucking brilliant. After following what was quite a disturbingly grounded and realistic film, this descent into surrealism for the last twenty minutes comes out of nowhere and because of this, works more effectively than it may have done if the entire film was shot like this. It keeps you hooked throughout and, for those who may not enjoy the entire film, I recommend staying around just to give the ending a go.
Now, is The House That Jack Built one of Von Trier’s best works? No. It would definitely have to be considered one of his weaker modern efforts, and the end of his ridiculous streak of five-star films. Is that to say it’s a bad film, or one without merit? Also, no. Compared to the stagnant and repulsively stale scene that is contemporary American cinema, THTJB remains head and shoulders above them. Whether you like Lars or not, we need him to keep cinema interesting.

Final Rating – 4/5

Poem: Night Thoughts

night thoughts

When the hour grows late,
And the perfume of today’s blossoms
Amplifies its thoughts in the darkness,
Their incense igniting reveries,
In the stillness, the sweetness, the clarity,

When your feet ache
From the mischief of mountains,
Your ears glutted
On the courtly love of ravens

The way their song conjured images
Of moss-brewed droplets,
Plunging into secret pools,
In cavern echoed-couplets

Then, in the bosom, of iris-lensed stars,
Listening to the gentle hum of far-off cars,

I write you a letter in invisible ink,
Where the lines all blur, dribble in the sink,

And, to quench my longing –
Night brooks singing –
The bells, the beauty,
The twilight underpinning,

I break free of meter

And, gushing out my thoughts
In silent streams of prose,
That neither death, nor conspiracy,
Shall ever disclose

I mail my thoughts out into the ether,
On the hermetic chance of night,

Beauty shared is beauty gained,
And secrets are a lover’s delight

Poem: Re-Growth


The tree grew out of my chest

From the black, bloody stump,
Malignant and redundant, coppiced
To death by the bleakest of winters,
Through the fogbanks and menace of tundra,
It started to put out new shoots,

Up-thrusting through the snow,
And the fears of frozen droplets,
It revealed the burst of little buds,
Tender and pregnant with promise,

Around my ribs, scarred wasted pectorals,
Mossy clumps gathered in flanks,
And skylarks sang on the bosky hill,
Where my body had lain withered, dormant,

Incubated in an ocean of soil,
My legs became a flowerbed,
And violets and anemones
Thrust through my follicles,
To laugh with the uproarious sky

It is too soon yet,
To see how these innocent saplings
Could become a mighty oak,

But in their naivety,
Reaching for the sunlight,
They learn the painful hope of growth

Poem: Diaspora, The Mother


Dancing beneath catkined willows,
I lacerate my chest with knives and needles,
The blood streams down over my ribs
Finding fruition in my loins,

The womb gluts itself on gore,
Quaffing the dregs of still-palpitant arteries,
Its hungry mouth chomps and spits,
Dribbling orphans into the road

From there, taking up their bindles,
They scatter, solitary, over the Earth,
Never meeting, nor startling each other,
The silent colonies move sadly apart

With the web, fractured, the silk threads split,
The spider’s limbs revolt in madness,
With no ruler to knit together,
All possible joy is a demented mass

So what hope, then, when ever fertile,
The Goddess, jubilant, gives up her blood?
Ever pullulating anguished sadness,
I lament, in futility, for my lovelorn brood

Poem: Jormungandr


Gnawing into The World Tree,
The serpent’s incisors strip away the bark,
Chewing at the roots, feasting on the loam
Of the Underworld – some hidden poison,
The too discrete sting in the tail –
Forever lurks in the night-time of happiness

Slithering through the soil,
The undergrowth of half-spun whispers,
The abortion of secrets bears ugly fruit
Misbegotten on the vine,

The ripeness of futility
Sours with the dregs of time

Poem: Disclosure Obscura


Suspended from The World Tree,
Rope digging into my wind-ravaged ankles,
Hunger gnawed at me like a toothless dog,
The spine of Atlas dwindled from view
As my sight grew befogged and dreamy

There, from that aerial vantage,
That sacred nest of hallucinations,
My misbegotten thoughts
Fledged into swarms
Of drunkest revelation

Whisked away to an elemental palace,
Enthroned on the electrical furnace of thought,
I was the guest of shadowy language,
Masquerading in a woman’s form

Disrobed of syntax and miserly grammar,
The chains cast off from symbology’s kink,
Bereft of veil to pose a question,
I beheld a deeper nudity

But lured back from the yawning abyss,
Not a word of it could I write,
The syllabaries all strangled to death,
The alphabet well-inked as night,

To dream, to see, the truth made gold,
The fulfilment of a higher sphere,
Once touched, its waters do not flow,
Untraced, its substance disappears,

The mouth, in which that tongue did lie,
Mortal shackles wastefully resist,
Keeping silence in Harpocratic oath,
Perfecting, instead, The Eternal Kiss

Poem: Wheel of Fortune


Come, past vases of Diana,
Pomegranates of Proserpina,
The shamanic contortions of Neptunian Triton,

Witness the agony of my ivory chest,
The sternum, over-real, where my soul is a guest,

The haunting procession of perfect bodies,
Wasted in the round of fortune

Unhappiness scarred on every face,
Like the carving of a tomb

Poem: Moving House


The body can only house so much,
Riven with terrors and night-stalking demons,
I apply for an extension –
Psychic planning permission –
Some radical self-storage
To preserve these new feelings
Disguised as furniture

With cellar door chomping at the bit,
All the baggage of repression,
Unspoken obsessions,
My mind filled with asteroids
And Grecian myths,
It’s only a matter of time,
Before this house throws up,
Spilling its guts out onto the streets

There, amidst refuse and detritus,
The unsalvageable wreckage of diseased emotions,
There is a tidal surge of unwanted effluent,
Frothing with oils spills and tenderness

How can I ride this current?
Buffeted by manta rays and killer whales,
The sting of embryos from toxic embraces,
I try to keep my brainwaves still,
Scarcely beyond the introductions

This isn’t etiquette – it’s sabotage,
The unfiltered domain of my domage,
When the kitchen sink leaks
And the faucets all speak
To the tune of fear and love

Moving house to a rough neighbourhood,
The calm before the floo

Poem: Arachne’s Web


It’s all about the spider women,
Fierce progenitors of ionic columns,
The distance, the space, the depth of touch,
Of giving into madness – but not too much,

Dancing, with my legs in the air,
My eyes in another dimension,
I held hands with the ageless aether,
The keeper of souls, the doorman, the weeper

Then creeping through strata of sunlight,
Crisscrossed with wombs of delicate night,
The sexual antagonism of tribal warfare,
Stretches the membrane between pain and delight,

Tattooed with pulses and invasions of colour,
Smearing the ash across our bleeding palms,
I vault through the boundary of the stained-glass window,
And look for the ecstasy that violence disarms,

With shadow puppets, and leprous hounds,
The jewels reclining in this vault of tears,
Every trauma has a platinum lining,
Every hope is embroidered with fears,

The pelvis, the coccyx, the base of the spine,
The terminal nausea of romantic procedure,
This is the sea-change in which I am caught:
The sadness of the unbelieved non-believer,

Poem: The Heiress’s Dream

Waterhouse, John William, 1849-1917; Fair Rosamund

The Heiress sits in her tower,
Surrounded by bric-a-brac, manuscripts,
Decks of cards, only the costliest of garments –
Never has a suicide looked more luxurious,
Cocooned in suffocating silk

She is waiting

At half-past nine,
The mysterious stranger will arrive,
His black boots clicking down the hallway

Dressed in green brocade,
Hands concealed in leather gloves,
You wait for the pressure of his sun-warmed fingers,
To constrict like a serpent around your neck

Now, you can feel it all unfolding, slowly,
Detached audience member at your own undoing:

The gradual loss of air,
Constrained carotid and jugular,
Creeping onset of cyanosis,

Then, thumbs locking together, pushing deeper,
Waiting for the fateful click of hyoid process,
Rupturing your windpipe with a haunting measure,
You’ve reached the point beyond which
Your compact cannot be broken

But, of course, he disappears before it hits –
Why must my love be like this?

No one ever returns,
Just the hag-like phantom,
With her leprous white hound
Whose maw is toothless and raw

The footsteps are just a bat’s echolocation,
And your heart’s in the cobblestone floor