CANNES, France (Reuters) – Lars Von Trier received a standing ovation when he arrived at the Cannes Film Festival, seven years after being thrown out for quipping that he was a nazi who sympathized with Hitler.
But if anyone was expecting the Danish provocateur to rein in his impulse to offend, he soon put them right with “The House That Jack Built”, an extremely dark comedy about a serial killer who uses mutilated corpses to create art.
Matt Dillon plays Jack who fills his walk-in freezer with dioramas of human flesh, with Uma Thurman his first victim, giving him a taste for murder and torture.
Throughout the film, a voiceover is played of a meandering conversation between Jack and the mysterious Verge, a wise and kind-sounding old man (Bruno Ganz) who is leading him down a long path to what we rightly imagine is Hell.
Rather than steering clear of Hitler, Von Trier includes clips of the German dictator as well as newsreel footage of his worst crime: decaying corpses piled up in a concentration camp, as Jack muses on the “noble rot” fungus that turns grape juice into fine wine.
Speaking to Reuters the day after the premiere, Von Trier said the point he had been trying to make in the fateful news conference in 2011, was that the world remained fascinated by Hitler, proving “there’s some magic in real terror”.
Of the film’s intense cruelty, particularly to women, he said: “Yes, but the whole thing is kind of ironical”. Asked if that was not just an excuse, the 62-year-old replied: “Yes, it is just an excuse, but I’m old enough now for excuses.”
As the viewer has to assume that there is some of Jack in Von Trier, obsessed with creating art that many would find disturbing, does he consider he might himself be a psychopath?
“After reading a lot about psychopaths, I think not,” he said. “But also, psychopaths would say the same: Certainly not!”
For Dillon, some of the murders were: “the toughest days I have ever had doing movies”.
“I almost didn’t do the film because of that,” he said about a scene in which he cuts off a girlfriend’s breasts before killing her.
“It wasn’t so much the graphic nature of it. For me, the most troubling thing about it was the humiliation, the cruelty, but … with Lars you have to take the good with the bad.”
“He goes to very dark places in the films, obviously, and I don’t think you could get much darker than what he has done here, although Hell has trap doors, as we see in this film,” Dillon said, referring to a spectacular final sequence.
IndieWire called “The House That Jack Built”: “an often-horrifying, sadistic dive into a psychotic internal monologue (… that is) also possibly brilliant”, while The Guardian dismissed it as “a smirking ordeal of gruesomeness”.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 8 to May 19.
Reporting by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Hugh Lawson