Tag Archives: Lars von Trier

Houses of the Unholy

The House that Jack Built

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

What does a serial killer have in common with an indie filmmaker? Quite a lot, or so suggests indie filmmaker Lars von Trier.

We’ll say this with all sincerity: The House that Jack Built—a 2+ hour peek into the mind and methods of a murderer—is von Trier’s most lighthearted picture to date.

It’s also as tedious and self-indulgent as Nymphomaniac: Vol. II.

LvT’s artistry lies in his ability to make the viewer uncomfortable. His films are punishing, which is why his first foray into horror, the brilliant and wildly unnerving 2009 film Antichrist, was such a perfect fit. He returns to the genre with Jack, here allowing a sadistic murderer the opportunity to shed light on the filmmaker’s own discomforting artistry.

Which can work—Julian Richards’s The Last Horror Movie and Remy Balvaux’s Man Bites Dog both offer blistering achievements on the theme. But Jack falters, and von Trier falters, in two important ways.

The film does deliver sadistic glory, yet in terms of violence or depravity, it feels oddly safe. Not safe for all viewers, mind you, but horror fans and von Trier fans have seen far more envelope-pushing than what Jack depicts. There is one sequence—the picnic sequence—that is among the most perfect horror movie episodes ever filmed. Beyond that, much of this movie is competently made but ultimately tired.

We follow Jack (Matt Dillon, making the most of a surprising casting choice) through various instances of homicidal mania. As voiceover conversations with the mysterious Verge (Bruno Ganz) pay homage to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Jack’s bloody exploits become less darkly comedic and more brazenly sadistic, testing his claim that “the soul belongs to heaven and the body to hell.”

Just as the Nymphomaniac films traded provocative ideas for fist-shaking admonishments from filmmaker to critics, Jack devolves into an instrument wielded even less bluntly. Again, von Trier channels his tale through two voices: the protagonist and a straw man. Verge serves up the proselytizations on art and morality so Jack can knock ’em down, with snippets of von Trier’s previous films peppered in for anyone who still isn’t getting it.

Not that LvT’s ideas on this topic aren’t interesting – far from it- but the line between personal and self-indulgent is the same one that separates uncomfortable questions that resonate (as in von Trier’s own Dogville) from spoon-fed answers that do not. One side makes for an engaging film experience while the other falls short, no matter how impressive the visual set pieces (which Jack does indeed provide).

Von Trier has unapologetically wallowed in depravity his entire career, and those themes have served the narrative in amazing ways. Now he seems more interested in narratives that serve grandiose debates of his own artistic value.

Let’s hope that road has reached an end. While von Trier remains an artist worthy of attention, The House That Jack Built stands as another missed opportunity.

Nympho, and Proud of It!


Nymphomaniac:  Vol. II

by George Wolf

When we left Joe’s life story at the close of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac:  Vol. I, she had finally married Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), only to find she had lost the ability for sexual pleasure.

Well, she put it a bit more bluntly than that, but you know Joe!

In case you don’t..Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has been telling her tale to the curious intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). After finding Joe lying in the street badly beaten, Seligman took her to his place for recovery, and has been sitting at her bedside as she recounts a life dominated by her insatiable nature. 

While Vol. I was an effective, if uneven, look at a woman unabashedly in control of her sexuality, Vol. II dissolves into the brilliant but misunderstood filmmaker shaking his fist at an unworthy society.

Joe’s story continues, and we see her exploring more extreme sexual experiences (some depicted graphically enough to earn you college biology credits), including regular appointments for physical abuse at the hands of an S&M “counselor” (Jamie Bell, quietly disturbing).

This behavior naturally takes a toll on Joe’s role as a wife and mother, as well as her ability to hold down a job. But, her experience with men is valued by shady character “L” (Willem Dafoe), and she accepts his offer to go to work in his “debt collection” department.

As Joe brings events closer to the point where Seligman found her, von Trier’s script gives Joe long, philosophical speeches while Seligman serves as the vehicle for convenient straw man arguments von Trier is eager for Joe to knock down.

After years of being of accused of misanthropy, von Trier has been silent since his controversial Hitler comments a few years back. When Joe proclaims she cannot say “whether I left society or it left me,” it’s not hard to guess who “me” really is.

Vol. II‘s main advantage over Vol. I is Gainsbourg. While Stacy Martin was indeed impressive as the younger Joe, she can’t match the emotions Gainsbourg explores. Mining her character’s experiences for every bit of depth, Gainsbourg never allows you to feel it’s safe to take your eyes off of Joe. She’s good enough to almost make up for the absence of Uma Thurman’s comically tragic, absolutely show-stopping performance from the first installment.  Almost.

LvT continues to be a filmmaker that should never be ignored, but Nymphomaniac:  Vol. II ultimately feels like a missed opportunity.

What could have been an expanded take on how society views sexually powerful women instead becomes akin to a public stunt, a vehicle for von Trier to proclaim that he is what he is, and he ain’t ashamed.




Because “Sex Addict” Loses a Little of the Magic

Nymphomaniac, Volume I

by Hope Madden

Nymphomaniac, Volume I, is a difficult film to review, and not, surprisingly enough, because of its subject matter. The fact is that filmmaker provocateur Lars von Trier’s latest affront is, indeed, an unfinished piece. As engaging as Volume I is, it is not a standalone film, and without knowing precisely where LvT is going, it’s hard to say how well he’s getting there.

What we have so far is a not-so-simple dialogue. Old bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds a battered young woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in an alley. She won’t see a doctor, so he nurses her at his home and, in return, she tells him the story of her life.  Well, the first part, anyway.

For the next couple of hours, it’s as if LvT’s morose side (Gainsbourg, as Joe) argues with his impish side (Skarsgard), while Stacy Martin (playing the young Joe) has a lot of sex. The film is as much a story about storytelling as it is anything.

Joe sometimes rests in her confession to allow a little editorial from the helpful and artfully non-judgy Seligman. (Could he be named for the famed American psychologist Martin Seligman, founder of “positive psychology” and the theory of learned helplessness?) Seligman not only points out that she’s being too hard on herself, but offers different allegories from nature and science to enliven her narrative, sometimes even questioning the veracity of her tale based on contrivance and coincidence he’s finding.

Again, it’s as if LvT is arguing with himself over narrative devices and the strength of his own storytelling. It offers the film a playfulness rarely found in the Dane’s work, and the humor works wonders in keeping attention and distancing the film from a label of pornography.

Von Trier draws attention to the artifice he’s created. Even the title suggests a literary, romantic (as opposed to realistic) approach – in that the term used for the last several decades is sex addiction, which hardly conjures the same image.

His cast is game. A brief, supporting turn from Uma Thurman, in particular, is wickedly funny. But the star here is the filmmaker. Expect the von Trier trademarks: a visually magnificent display populated with shame, gender politics, sexuality, religion, all led by a wounded female who cannot fit in this world.

He’s exploring the same territory. Maybe he’s trying to distract us from that fact with all the sex? Or maybe he’s playing with us. While Volume II promises to be a more punishing effort, LvT’s first episode is surprisingly enjoyable.