Lars von Trier’s ‘The House That Jack Built’ and Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ make for a night of provocation in Cannes
The 71st Cannes Film Festival is underway (May 8 through Saturday), and L.A. Times critic Justin Chang is there, seeing as many movies as possible and writing about them for a day-by-day, film-by-film diary. This is one in a series of entries spanning the opening festivities to closing night. For more entries and reviews, click here.
They really will applaud anything you show at the Cannes Film Festival, so long as you put everyone in formal attire and roll out a red carpet beforehand.
I remember thinking this in 2009, at the black-tie gala premiere of Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” whose climactic burst of genital-shredding imagery sent horrified moviegoers lunging for the exits. Nonetheless, when it was over, the movie drew a standing ovation and shouts of “Bravo!” among the many who chose to stay for the duration.
A similar mix of mid-screening walkouts and post-screening applause greeted von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built,” the hectoring, masturbatory slog of a serial-killer movie that had its out-of-competition premiere at Cannes late Monday night, marking this Danish director’s long-awaited, long-dreaded return to a festival that seven years ago declared him “persona non grata.”
Von Trier stood there quietly in the Grand Théâtre Lumière when it was over, smiling a thin, inscrutable little smile and basking in his moment of redemption, or perhaps savoring the irony that it had arrived with the least redemptive anti-entertainment of his career.
I’ll come right to the point, something this endlessly self-amused, throat-clearing filmmaker could never be accused of doing: Lars von Trier is a stupid, arrogant troll and, when the mood strikes him, a reasonably talented filmmaker. But there are only a few moments in “The House That Jack Built” in which his stupidity doesn’t entirely overwhelm and negate his talent.
Nearly all of them arrive at the end, when a red-robed serial killer named Jack (Matt Dillon) willfully descends — accompanied by a wizened incarnation of the poet Virgil, or “Verge” (Bruno Ganz) — into a fiery, cavernous hell visualized in images of painterly stillness and beauty. (Spoilers? Like von Trier, I truly couldn’t care less. If reading further spares you the trouble of buying a ticket, be my guest.)
Although he was once a leading proponent of the murky-herky-jerky digital aesthetic known as Dogma 95, von Trier has an instinctive gift for the striking image. The eerily Boschian epilogue of “The House That Jack Built” plays, in some ways, like a reversal of the slo-mo apocalypse that kicked off his uncharacteristically lovely and mature 2011 drama, “Melancholia.” In this case, however, the brief poetic respite arrives after a 130-minute pileup of torturous, tedious violence, nearly all of it directed against women. I’ve never seen Cannes issue screening tickets with a trigger warning before (“scènes violentes”), but festival officials were perhaps wise to make an exception this time.
As you may recall, “Melancholia” played at Cannes in 2011, where von Trier made some grotesquely ill-advised remarks (i.e., claiming to understand Hitler and calling himself a Nazi) at a disastrous press conference following his otherwise rapturously received movie. Like most film festivals, Cannes is a champion of artistic freedom in the cinema. But it it is also rooted in French soil, where anti-Semitism — even von Trier’s bumbling, halfhearted, witless excuse for anti-Semitism — is not something taken lightly.
Even still, those of us who watched in bemusement as the festival kicked the director to the curb knew that he would be back sooner or later, perhaps following some public display of contrition on his and/or the festival’s part. But “The House That Jack Built” finds von Trier in a singularly unrepentant mood. Presented as the story of a serial killer’s lonely formation, rise and fall, it is better understood as a calculated outrage, a #MeToo think-piece magnet and a 2½-hour trolling session.
The story is structured in five “incidents,” each one focusing on one or more of Jack’s victims. In the first incident, Jack clubs a stranded driver (Uma Thurman) to death with her own car jack. In the second, he knocks on the door of a woman (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), passing himself off as a cop before garrotting her and stabbing her in the chest. In the third, he arms himself with a hunting rifle and uses a woman (Sofie Gråbøl) and her two young sons for target practice. In the fourth … you get the idea. There are also scenes of animal cruelty and human taxidermy, along with some handy corpse-freezing techniques. No genital mutilation this time, although Jack does tie up a girl (Riley Keough) and slice off one of her breasts.
All this violence, it scarcely needs to be pointed out, is gratuitously unpleasant. I imagine it might have been even harder to take if von Trier were a more precise filmmaker, if he had either the will or the discipline to build tension inside the frame, which would require him to do something other than simply wave the camera from side to side like a drunken onlooker.
And as bad as von Trier’s playful sadism may be, his defensive pedantry may be even worse. Not unlike his two-part carnal epic “Nymphomaniac,” which crammed its scenes of sexual self-debasement alongside digressions on subjects like Beethoven and the Fibonacci sequence, “The House That Jack Built” fancies itself something of an intellectual feast. Jack, confessing his crimes to Verge in voiceover, likes to hold forth on subjects like viticulture, Gothic cathedral architecture and the music of Glenn Gould, whose performance of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C Minor is repeated here on an endless loop with David Bowie’s “Fame.”
Played by Dillon with seemingly little direction beyond “Ed Gein as world’s most insufferable party guest,” Jack is an architect and an engineer by trade and a grievously misunderstood artist by temperament, someone who alone possesses the aesthetic discernment and structural ingenuity that can turn mass murder into a masterpiece. He is therefore an obvious stand-in for von Trier, who uses each of Jack’s crimes against humanity to revisit his own alleged offenses against the medium.
By making nearly all Jack’s victims women — and awfully “stupid” women at that, in Verge’s estimation — von Trier gleefully reinvites the charges of misogyny that he has already racked up over his career, not always deservedly, with studies in saintly female suffering like “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark” and “Dogville.” Oh, Lars and his reel girls.
In an even nastier twist of the thematic knife, von Trier returns to the subject of Hitler, piling on the Holocaust atrocity footage and the fawning admiration of Nazi architecture. He wonders if the worst despots throughout history, including Mao and Stalin, might be artists in their own right, finding in acts of mass extermination what Jack describes as “the beauty of decay.”
There is something provocative about this notion, even as it sets an artistic standard that von Trier cannot hope to reach. Beyond those scattered final moments, “The House That Jack Built” lacks the inclination to be beautiful and the courage to be genuinely ugly.
He has of course constructed the entire movie as a pseudo-intellectual trap for his audiences, his critics and perhaps even himself. To respond to his provocations (if that’s the word) with condemnation and anger is on some level to give him precisely the reaction he wants, and to acknowledge, perhaps, that only a genuine artist could have provoked it.
I’m not offended by von Trier’s awfulness; as an erratic admirer of the man’s work, I’m dispirited by his laziness. Let’s hear it, by all means, for the unruly transgressive artist, but can you really be called transgressive — or, in any meaningful sense, an artist — if you seem actively terrified about abandoning the safety net of your past glories and old stomping grounds?
“The House That Jack Built” is useless garbage, but we should be cautious about mistaking it for much more than that, or elevating it to that plane where, as von Trier himself has demonstrated in the past, art and trash can indeed converge. Now that he and Cannes have officially kissed and made up, here’s hoping they can finally both move on to better things.
Doubtless seeking to maximize headlines, the festival saw fit to program von Trier’s movie right after Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” a vastly more successful provocation as well as one of the few high-profile American movies in competition. Lee has been away from Cannes even longer than von Trier; he competed for the Palme d’Or with 1989’s “Do the Right Thing” and 1991’s “Jungle Fever,” though he has been back more recently with out-of-competition titles including 1999’s “Summer of Sam.”
If “Chi-Raq” (2015) reawakened Lee’s energy and imagination as a satirist, a vital voice on the realities of racialized violence in American society, then his furious, beautifully controlled “BlacKkKlansman” brings him roaring fully back to life. It may not be as conceptually audacious as that earlier picture, but its fusion of incendiary vigor and pulpy, pop-savvy entertainment is something to behold.
“BlacKkKlansman” was adapted from a book by Ron Stallworth, Colorado Springs’ first black police officer, who in the early 1970s succeeded in infiltrating the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The sheer absurdity of the circumstances clearly inspired Lee and his three co-writers to play the material, ingeniously, for laughs as well as jolts: Moments of suspenseful police-procedural buildup are heightened, rather than undercut, by an edgy comic tension in scene after scene.
Facing discrimination and harassment from white cops not long after he joins the force, Ron (John David Washington, son of Denzel) decides one day to call up the Klan on a whim (their number is listed in the newspaper) and pretend to be an aspiring member. There’s a priceless cutaway to Stallworth’s colleagues, looking on with deadpan befuddlement as this epithet-spouting, Afro-sporting rookie rails on the phone about how much he hates blacks, Jews and anyone else without “pure white Aryan blood” running through their veins.
Some of the funniest, did-this-really-happen moments will come later, when Ron chats on the phone with a young David Duke (Topher Grace), grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who proceeds to set himself up for some of the most humiliating self-owns in recent memory.
The movie comes together when a fellow cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, excellent) reluctantly agrees to join the undercover investigation, with the real Ron working the phones and Flip playing him in the flesh. It’s an unwieldy arrangement that seems ripe for all manner of dangerous slip-ups, and Lee stages Flip’s meetings with “the organization,” as the KKK prefers to call itself, with a kicky, unnerving flair.
At one point, the most frighteningly volatile of the Klansmen (the terrific Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen), suspects (correctly) that Flip might be Jewish and tells him to drop his pants and show if he’s “circumstanced.” The redneck-baiting humor doesn’t get much subtler than that, especially in the case of a Klansman, played by “I, Tonya’s” Paul Walter Hauser, who isn’t quite as funny as the movie thinks he is.
Lee, of course, has famously never been one for subtlety, and many would conclude that these are not times that call for it. The director uses “Ron’s” conflicted double identity to give the movie a dialectical structure, at one point juxtaposing a Klan initiation ceremony, replete with hoods and robes, with a somber meeting of Colorado College’s Black Student Union, whose outspoken president, Patrice (Laura Harrier), becomes Ron’s love interest and unwitting informant.
If “BlacKkKlansman” is not above turning its characters into mouthpieces for its ideas, it wards off excessive didacticism by giving those ideas a heady flow and a sustained pulse. There’s real, expressive joy in its anger.
Lee, who understands the importance of the medium as well as the message, has in some ways made a movie about movies: The first shot is a famous scene from “Gone With the Wind,” and at one point we see Duke and other Klansmen getting their jollies by watching “The Birth of a Nation.” “BlacKkKlansman” offers itself up as a clear corrective to Hollywood’s tainted legacy, verbally and visually referencing pictures like “Coffy,” “Shaft” and “Hit Man,” and at one point presenting Ron and Patrice as their own fantasy blaxploitation duo.
Whatever laughter the movie musters dies in your throat as it builds to a crescendo of horrific images from summer’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., forging parallels between white-supremacist activities, now and then, which are no less infuriating for being fairly obvious. The real Duke pops up in news footage, as does President Trump, drawing his now-notorious false equivalency between the protesters “on both sides.” (Lee, not holding back, denounced Trump with a 12-letter expletive at his press conference on Tuesday morning.)
“BlacKkKlansman” immediately stirred Palme d’Or talk after its premiere; whatever awards it wins or doesn’t win here, the Focus Features release is set to open Aug. 10, nearly a year to the day after the Charlottesville protests. Its warm embrace so far is an auspicious sign for what will almost certainly be a more divided theatrical reception, and for good reason. Lars von Trier may have disgraced Cannes with his cinematic killing spree, but it took a Spike Lee joint to draw real blood.
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