Double Take is a series where Anna Swanson and Meg Shields sit down and yell at each other about the controversial, uncomfortable, and contentious corners of cinema. And they don’t come much more contentious than ‘The House That Jack Built,’ Lars von Trier’s most recent, and arguably most divisive cinematic offering. For the record, the official word here at FSR is that it is “surprisingly fun.”
The film follows serial killer and failed architect Jack (Matt Dillon) as he trudges through the afterlife recounting five Incidents from his exploits to his guide, Virgil (Bruno Ganz), or, as Jack calls him, “Verge.” Jack’s tales are interjected by rants on everything from dessert wines to whether great art springs from obscenity. Since the film’s premiere at Cannes that marked the return of von Trier to the festival following him being labeled persona non grata in 2011, its brutal and arguably gratuitous depictions of violence have caused quite a stir. Last year, Meg and Anna caught a screening of the director’s cut, and haven’t shut up about it since. En lieu of the uncut blu-ray release, they sat down to unpack their feels, and this is the conversation that followed.
The following contains spoilers for The House That Jack Built.
Meg Shields: When you google reviews of The House that Jack Built there are words and phrases that always pop up. That it’s provocative for the sake of being provocative. A lot of folks accuse it of being boring. That it’s sadistic and shrill.
Anna Swanson: (laughing) I’m not hearing negatives. Also, make up your minds! Does it elicit a strong reaction or is it dull?
MS: Make no mistake there are very valid reasons to hate this film. But I do think that rejecting it because it’s hard to watch not only misses the point of the film but actually kind of proves it.
AS: So, I just watched the theatrical cut to compare it with the director’s cut. What I caught was, at about an hour in during the Incident of him hunting children, we don’t see the kids get shot on-screen. Which is kind of what I expected? If there was one thing they were going to cut it was going to be the kids getting shot. I was surprised that in the theatrical cut the part where the mom feeds pie to her dead sons was partially cut.
AS: Yeah he tells her to do it, and we see her hold the spoon, but there’s a good chunk of it that’s missing. In the unrated cut, it’s much more drawn-out. I think it’s interesting that it’s not just the violence that they cut, but the aftermath too. We don’t see the kids propped up with sticks and stuff. It’s just her. That was the main chunk that was changed. There are also fewer shots of him taxidermizing the kid. We also don’t see Jack cut off [his victim] Jacqueline’s (Riley Keough) breast, just slap it on the car windshield.
MS: So I guess the scandal and hoopla about the director’s cut being released in theaters early was just about the MPAA wanting to control things.
AS: With Nymphomaniac, I know the difference between the cuts was very different because the theatrical was much shorter. There was very little cut out of Jack. I honestly expected more.
MS: Which is surprising considering how controversial Jack has felt compared to other von Trier projects. I mean that’s why we wanted to talk about Jack. It’s controversial as hell.
MS: I heard about his comments at the Melancholia panel and knew that he’d been invited back to Cannes for Jack. Critics were calling it depraved, misogynistic, narcissistic edge lord shit that no one should give the time of day. Then, later, a lot of women I admire and trust started tweeting about loving it. People have strong reactions to this movie. I think you kind of have to. And I wasn’t expecting women to love a movie that was condemned as a toxic waste pile. And I’m really glad I kept an open mind and gave it the time of day.
AS: One of the things I really like about this film is how much it calls itself out on something before anyone else gets the opportunity to. Like right off the top, when Verge says: “just don’t believe you’re going to tell me something I haven’t heard before.” I like that idea: that we know this story.
MS: That’s the big clue to this movie. We’ve been here.
AS: We know serial killers. We know Jack. We’re inundated with this content.
MS: It’s also a voice of reason telling us right off the bat that Jack thinks he’s hot shit and he’s not. It’s a very tricky line to walk—and I’m not completely sure that von Trier pulls it off—having a film narrated so forcefully by someone who is completely convinced of his own brilliance. It’s not always easy to suss out who is being made fun of at a given time, but it’s the key to this movie, I think.