“Serial killers are sort of relaxing to write,” says Lars Von Trier. Skyping from his office in Denmark, he’s jovial when discussing the process of writing his fifteenth feature film. Perhaps he has a point — after all, there’s a reason that so much of our popular culture revolves around a fascination with them. From television shows to best-selling books and — of course — films, as a collective we can’t get enough of the grizzly stuff.
“My experience is that people, especially women, are very fascinated by serial killers,” agrees Von Trier. “I have been married twice and both of my wives read many books about them. The subject wasn’t so interesting to me, but then later I decided to study a little bit about psychopaths.”
This research brought Von Trier to conceive The House That Jack Built, his latest film since Nymphomaniac back in 2013. It’s not like Von Trier to go so long without making a film, but perhaps he was due a rest, given that in its uncut form, Nymphomaniac ran for 330 minutes. Weighing in at a comparatively svelte 155 minutes, Von Trier’s newest work tackles a subject he hasn’t yet broached in his wide and often weird filmography: serial murder. Yet to dismiss The House That Jack Built as purely violent titillation is to deny oneself the full experience: Von Trier’s film is about murder, but it’s also about art, and by the director’s own admission, the art of filmmaking. Often challenging and frequently wry, Von Trier plums the depths of human misery to bring us an utterly nihilistic vision of human haplessness, mediating on our fascination with the pursuit of celebrity, through the familiar lens of the serial killer movie.
“It was so fun to write the dialogue because you never knew what you would end up saying,” Von Trier enthuses. “A psychopath believes that they believe they can get away with anything — they really trust in themselves.”
Casting former teen idol Matt Dillon as the titular psycho killer Jack feels like part of this knowingness on Von Trier’s part. “It was a very difficult part to cast,” he muses. “A lot of people over time have written to me, saying they would do anything to work with me, and when I sent them the script they said they would do anything but this script. But Matt was fine,” he grins. “I think he’s doing a fine job.” Certainly this is Dillon as we’ve never seen him before, undergoing rapid-cycle transformations as the film jolts around in time, charting a series of ‘incidents’ over the course of Jack’s life. We see him pleading a potential victim to leave him alone; we see him plotting the most depraved of crimes; we see him suffering the intrusive thoughts that come as part of his self-diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It takes a heck of an actor to carry such a weight, but Dillon makes it look effortless.
This latest feature marked not only Von Trier’s return to filmmaking, but also his return to the Cannes Film Festival, where the film premiered back in May. In 2011, following comments he made about Adolf Hitler while promoting his film Melancholia, Von Trier was declared ‘Persona Non Grata’ and banned from the festival (he took his next film, Nymphomaniac, to Berlin Film Festival as a result). When The House That Jack Built premiered, a hundred headlines premiered too, denouncing the film as gratuitously violent and misogynistic, as disgusted audience members walked out of Cannes screenings. “People have walked out on many of my films, and I think that it’s important to have some walkouts,” Von Trier muses. “But I thought that this time, it’s just violence. That’s what every film has. There are some films that are much more violent than mine. But I was wrong — people really reacted to the violence.”
That violence doesn’t seem to have phased Uma Thurman, who last worked with Von Trier on Nymphomaniac. She returns in The House That Jack Built as one of the killer’s unwitting victims — a rather abrasive woman with a flat tire and a broken carjack.
“If you had been with Uma Thurman for a long time, you would understand Jack’s predicament,” Von Trier laughs. “No, that was a joke, sorry. Don’t tell that to Uma. But it was such a perfect part for her. She comes in like a rocket, and leaves like a rocket also.” Uma is joined by Riley Keough (daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, granddaughter of Elvis Presley) who gives a heart-wrenching performance as Jack’s naive girlfriend, whom he refers to as “Simple”. “She is a fantastic actress,” enthuses Von Trier, and he’s not wrong. “I said to her, because I didn’t know who she was related to, ‘When we film, you will probably find me a little drunk and a little weird,’ and she said ‘I think I can cope,’ and when I learned later who her family were, I understood. I would definitely like to work with her again.”
This all-American cast makes sense when you realise the film is set in Washington, USA, despite being filmed entirely in Sweden and Denmark. “When I started making films, I saw that America was the film language, because most of the films I saw were American,” Von Trier recalls. “It was important that the language was the right one. I’ve never been to America, and I certainly haven’t been to the state of Washington, but we found out with the help of some Americans that the landscape we wanted could be Washington. So that’s why three or four of my films have taken place there. It’s not because I hate Washington,” he laughs.
America feels like a natural home for this mediation on the violent nature of celebrity, and pop culture references flit in and out. At one point Jack holds up cue cards recreating Bob Dylan’s music video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues‘, while Davie Bowie’s ‘Fame’ is used both in the trailer and the film itself. Previously Von Trier used Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ to end Manderlay and Dogville, and ‘Life on Mars?’ in Breaking the Waves. Von Trier has always spoken of his admiration for the icon (in 2015, he announced he was beginning to shoot The House that Jack Built by quoting ‘Diamond Dogs’ in a Facebook video), but this is the first film of his to come out following Bowie’s death in 2016. “He disappointed me by dying,” Von Trier sighs. “I think there are some people that don’t die, and Bowie is definitely one of them. I had a therapist once that died and I felt very betrayed. But he has been a great idol of mine for all my life. You heard so much about the man behind the music that you felt like you knew him. I’m disappointed, but I’m still listening.”
Listening too is Virge (Bruno Ganz), the omnipresent companion to Jack, who guides him along on their journey into the afterlife, and bears witness as Jack bears his soul by recalling his crimes. Taking direct inspiration from Dante Alighieri’s seminal narrative epic “The Divine Comedy”, Jack and Virge stand-in for Dante and Virgil. “First I worked with a co-writer called Jenle Hallund, and she had this idea about Hell which was a good idea,” nods Von Trier. “I thought it was about time – it’s a long time since people have been followed to Hell in films. Faust, one of the first films, had devils with horns, but we didn’t go in that direction. We were a little more poetic, I would say.”
Von Trier’s vision of Hell draws more on visions from classical art than cinema, pointing to the paintings of Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch as well as directly shouting out beloved British poet and printmaker William Blake. But what of The Divine Comedy, so clearly a reference point for the film’s structure, as Jack journeys further through the circles of Hell?
“Let me say, it’s called a comedy, but I have read it and I didn’t laugh very much,” Von Trier says. “It’s very difficult to read, because Dante who wrote it had a lot of enemies, and he wanted to write about them in a bad way, so he chose to put them in different places in Hell. It was mostly a revenge thing he did. But no one knows the names anymore of the people he was talking about, so it’s not an easy book to read. With The House That Jack Built, there is a lot of humour, but it depends a little bit on how you decide to see the film.” There is indeed some pitch-black comedy in the film, notably in its ending, which contains one of the most breathtaking displays of cinematic hubris ever undertaken. But if The Divine Comedy was Dante’s revenge, is The House That Jack Built Von Trier’s just desserts for those that have wronged him? “No,” he chuckles. “I couldn’t say that.”
But the film is personal, often achingly so. At one point, there’s even a montage including clips from Von Trier’s own films. His challenge to tell a simple story creatively seems to have paid dividends.
“Jack contains some of me in him, as a parallel to making art or trying to make art,” Von Trier explains. Is it more about art than murder? “I am sure.” Indeed, one of the most compelling elements of the story is Jack’s battle with his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. “I suffer from OCD myself, and I know you can change your fixation by finding some issues that are not so dangerous,” he continues. “That is the good side of OCD. If you can’t live like that, you should definitely do something about it, but most people have OCD to a degree.”
Filmmaking seems to be Von Trier’s own way of managing his condition. “The way I structure filmmaking…first I write the synopsis, then I write the script. Everything is planned and there’s a date. That helps.” The thought of The House That Jack Built as his own form of therapy lends it new meaning — as does the thought of cinema as slaughter, slaughter as art and art as comedy. The richness of the themes in Von Trier’s latest work mean it’s deserving of discussion, which will surely be generated by its, er, festive pre-Christmas release date. And the director himself? He seems quietly happy he’s still getting away with murder.
The House That Jack Built is released 14 December. Get all the latest horror news with every issue of SciFiNow.