Movies

Is Lars Von Trier’s new movie The House That Jack Built too controversial for Canada?

Dead of night in mid-October, brisk and drizzling. More
than 400 people are seated in the Rio Theatre in East
Vancouver, an opulent movie-house from the 1930s. About to
begin is a second sold-out showing of Lars Von Trier’s new
film
The House That Jack
Built
, as part of the Altered States program
at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Moments before showtime, sipping craft beer from plastic
cups, the audience is exuberant. As well they should be. They
are about to watch a great movie: one of Von Trier’s best, his
most cunning and sophisticated, a grim treatise full of black
humour and ugly, unsparing truth. But it’s more exciting than
that. This crowd, as it happens, are among a select lucky few
who will have the privilege of actually seeing this film in a
cinema in Canada.

Why has the most challenging and original movie of the
year effectively vanished from existence before anyone has had
the chance to watch it? I have been bewildered by this question
since the Toronto International Film Festival revealed its
September lineup in late summer and
The House
That Jack Built
was inexplicably nowhere to be
found. 

The House That Jack Built is at once
a movie about a serial killer and a movie about movies about
serial killers. It contains great amounts of graphic violence,
largely inflicted against women, and is moreover about screen
violence, and screen violence against women in particular. It
portrays, exhaustingly over nearly two-and-a-half-hours, every
conceivable cruelty and evil, and indeed plays many of its most
repugnant acts as slapstick, almost daring you to either laugh
or scream. The sum effect is nauseating. And it makes you think
seriously, very seriously, about ideas that are by nature
difficult to consider.

Jack — murdering under the self-adopted alias Mr.
Sophistication, played with irrepressible fervour by Matt
Dillon, and serving as transparent alter-ego for Von Trier — is
an architect. He has an eye for design and a mind for
philosophy. He kills, and also studies killing, exploring its
possibilities and cogitating on its logistics and
problems.

Film festivals are supposed to foster
thought and encourage reflection. Arousing outrage is a risk
inherent to the job.

His butchery starts cold and slowly gets conceptual; so
does Von Trier’s, as the movie traces a series of grisly
“incidents” that increase in horror as well as intelligent
rationale. For as Jack kills, he also muses and reflects,
discussing what he’s done and why he’s done it with an unseen
co-narrator, played by Bruno Ganz. The killings are vile and
outrageous. But it’s the conversations that truly unnerve —
because it happens that thinking about this stuff is even more
demanding than watching it unfold.

Too demanding, perhaps.

Industry rumour suggests the powers that be at TIFF expressly
prohibited the programming team from considering the film not
long after its controversial world premiere in May at Cannes —
a firm edict intended, I suppose, to wash the festival’s hands
of any turbulence it might otherwise invite by association.

Whether TIFF really did snub Von Trier to avoid conflict at a
time of heightened sensitivity in the arts is hard to prove;
major festivals are not in the habit of corroborating
unfavourable gossip. (An in-house publicist told me simply that
“TIFF does not comment on films that are not selected for the
festival.”) In any case, TIFF elected not to screen The
House That Jack Built
. Other than Vancouver, almost
no festivals did.

The House That Jack Built has a
distributor, unlike many other worthy films that, for reasons
of obscurity or niche appeal, disappear soon after their
arrival on the festival circuit. It was acquired out of Cannes
by Toronto-based Mongrel Media, owing to an exclusive
arrangement with their American counterpart IFC Films. But
Mongrel will not be opening the film theatrically in Canada. It
will screen twice in Montreal, on the 27th and 28th of
November; it will play in Toronto only once, at Hot Docs, at
close to midnight on December 1, and then it will go straight
to video-on-demand services.

Was Mongrel confronted by the same hostility from local
cinemas that they faced across the festival circuit? Or were
they apprehensive about releasing a film that seems almost
preordained to offend? Reached for comment, a representative
from the organization said only that they “feel this is the
optimal release plan for this specific film.”

Optimal for whom? Not Canadian moviegoers, who will be
denied the pleasure of enjoying this excellent film on the big
screen. But perhaps there is a certain advantage to the
distributor in suppression — the advantage of circumventing the
controversy that beleaguered Von Trier at the Cannes Film
Festival earlier this year, where both audience members present
for his film’s red-carpet premiere and professional film
critics stormed out of its screening drunk on
indignation.

When a film this provocative — and this
good — languishes in oblivion before being dumped on VOD,
it’s hard not to chalk it up to widespread industry
cowardice.

What publicist wants to open the newspaper opening
weekend to find a two-page editorial lambasting those
responsible for condoning an immoral work? Safer to shepherd
the would-be
cause celebre to
the iTunes store quietly and hope that nobody notices your
affiliation. Festivals, too, would rather evade any risk of
public umbrage. Who could blame TIFF for rebuffing Von Trier,
given the outrage Von Trier can hardly help arousing?

Except, of course, film festivals are supposed to foster
thought and encourage reflection. Arousing outrage is a risk
inherent to the job. Probably some people who saw

The House That Jack Built in
Vancouver loathed it; but Vancouver gave them the opportunity
to see it in the first place. The festival trusted them to
determine its merits for themselves — as adults. That’s good
programming.

Certainly, no festival, distributor or theatre is
obliged to program any particular
film — and there are plenty of unsensational reasons why

The House That Jack Built might have
been passed over by Toronto et al. Still, when a film this
provocative — and this good — languishes in oblivion before
being dumped on VOD, it’s hard not to chalk it up to widespread
industry cowardice.

Given the festivals afraid of its depravity; distributors
alarmed by its capacity to provoke; and even critics driven to
flee by its wickedness, one would think, sight unseen,
that
The House That Jack Built
is a movie of unspeakable brutality and perversion, a
no-holds-barred horror show engineered to disturb and appall.
Not so. Not even, I was surprised to find, by Von Trier’s
standards: where one might reasonably have accused the director
of
Dogville and
Dancer in the Dark before of
delighting in the misery of his characters or in the discomfort
of his audience, here those criticisms ring hollow.

The House That Jack Built concerns a
serial killer. It is, as one might imagine, often extremely
violent and deeply upsetting. Gruesome though its images may
be, they are never gratuitous. Much in the movie shocks;
nothing shocking is meaningless. The carnage is always in
service of the point.

The point is a kind of taxonomy of violence and horror in
art — a big, sweeping disquisition on morality, creation and
destruction, on the responsibility of artists and the
corruption of power it requires to create.
It
seems to me especially crazy to reject Von Trier’s films on the
grounds of its violence and depravity, because the artistic
value of this violence and depravity is the very subject of the
film: he is inviting us to think about and work through these
ideas, not merely rubbing our noses in scandal, and the film
festival and the movie theatre are the ideal places to perform
this valuable work.

Von Trier isn’t willing to proceed in these times without
radical self-interrogation, whose conclusion he never takes for
granted. Why should we wriggle out of it either? “This movie
mistreats its female characters” is a brain-dead answer to
questions of representation and ethics the movie itself is
posing.

You can disagree with the arguments Von Trier mounts in
his defence — he seems to want us to — but to dismiss the case
without hearing it out is quite simply spineless.

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