In The House That Jack Built, Lars Von Trier comes closest to an autobiography. In an interview published in University Post, the director said, “My opinion is that if you can think it, you should be able to show it.” And the film, set in 1970s USA, is about a serial killer (Jack, played by Matt Dillon) whose motto might well be: “If you can think it, you should be able to do it.” Think this is a stretch? Here’s an actual line from the film: “Some people say that the atrocities we commit in fiction are those we cannot commit in a controlled civilization.” Sounds like a confession to me! You won’t have to go very far to find people who put Von Trier’s movies on par with serial killings — only, what’s massacred is the mind. Note the title, too — it’s about an act of creation. (Jack builds a house. Von Trier builds a movie.) And wait! Jack suffers from OCD, a condition Von Trier has admitted afflicts him.
Watching a Von Trier movie is like submitting yourself to a psychological test. Are you the kind that can watch a duckling (or a woman, or a child) being mutilated? If yes, then what kind of human being are you? They say great art makes you question things. I can’t think of a bigger question than that. What does it say about me when I laugh at the line, “It struck me like lightning from the sky. I couldn’t help running the little lady over?” Of course, fiction distances things — I’d be horrified if I saw Jack run a little lady over in real life. But still. The killings are interspersed with pensées — about, say, why men are always considered guilty and women always the victim. And Jack’s “artistry” is constantly juxtaposed with the work of other artists: Glenn Gould playing Bach on the piano; the makers of cathedrals with pointed arches; a bit about the greatness of Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect. (Clearly, the fact that he was banned from Cannes after his sympathetic remarks on Hitler doesn’t bother Von Trier.)
The result is an equal-opportunity American Psycho (the killings aren’t restricted to women), set in an asylum for the metaphysically disturbed. Von Trier may be a nutcase — just wait till you see the completely-bonkers final section, or what the titular house really refers to — but he is a genius. A seriously twisted one, sure — but you have to bow to an imagination that finds “the breath of life” in a symbol of death, i.e. the whooshing scythe a farmer mows a meadow with. Then, there’s Verge (Bruno Ganz). The name is short for Virgil, who guided Dante through hell in Divine Comedy, and it’s no accident. Verge is Jack’s friend, philosopher, therapist, guide. The closing portions of The House That Jack Built unfold in hell, but I think Von Trier would say he shot them in his own house. Or inside his mind.
If you’ve ever wondered about the question “what does a director do?”, watch Matteo Garrone’s Dogman. Almost every shot — varying between static and handheld — is meticulously composed and held for precise durations that sweep us ineffably into the world he sets up, into the psychology of the characters. Garrone’s last film, Tale of Tales, was fantastic in more ways than one — in the ‘terrific’ sense, and also in the sense of being based on fantasy. Dogman (Italian) is fantastic only in the former sense. The setting is painfully real — a doomy seaside town, where a slender man named Marcello (Marcello Fonte, who looks like a less Hollywoody Al Pacino) runs a daycare plus grooming centre for dogs.
The opening scene sets up the story. Marcello is “handling” a ferocious pit bull, cooing to and cajoling and finally getting it to do his bidding — and the (admittedly heavy-handed) irony is that he isn’t able to do the same with humans, especially the much-larger Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a thug who uses brute strength to manipulate Marcello into doing things (getting coke, driving a getaway car) for him. As a reward, Simone takes Marcello to a strip club where the dancers are dressed like angels, with wings and a halo. The narrative arc is about deals with the devil. This small-scale drama makes a big point about what we stand to lose if we allow ourselves to be bullied by might and let our actions be dictated by fear. The ending is a victory for Marcello, but his humanity stands defeated. The final image is a haunting study of a lost soul.
The English title of Bi Gan’s Di Qiu Zui Hou De Ye Wan (Mandarin) is Long Day’s Journey into Night — but the plot bears no connection to the Eugene O’Neill play. There may be a stylistic link though. The play was set during the course of one long day; this film’s latter half (50-odd minutes) unfurls in one long take. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Walking into the film, I was surprised to be handed a pair of 3D glasses. The note at the film’s beginning was even more surprising: “This is not a 3D film but please join our protagonist in putting on the glasses at the right moment.” The audience laughed.
If you’ve seen Bi Gan’s earlier film, Kaili Blues, you know the tone: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s trance-like narration meets Wong Kar-Wai’s neon-drenched dreaminess. The plot, here, is similar, too. Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns to Kaili looking for the woman he loved. (In Kaili Blues, the protagonist was looking for his nephew.) I don’t know if it’s the translation, but Bi Gan’s dialogues are purpler than purple. Sample: “Have you counted the stars in the sky? They are like little birds parachuting through my chest.” But the film loops back to the line (and others) in a very satisfying way — even if you’re not quite sure how. (There’s a kind of dream logic at work; you can’t explain it but it feels right.)
Besides, it’s more about the visuals — and not just scenes like the one where a woman in a jade-green dress sashays slowly, very slowly, in front of a car whose headlights fall on her. In the 2D portions, the frames are often sliced (by the diagonal of a grilled staircase; by an open window on the first floor of a building, through which we peer down) as though to suggest the film’s own impending bifurcation. And when the film slips into 3D, it’s no gimmick. It’s not to throw things at you, but to throw you into the protagonist’s experience — through a mine that functions as a tunnel into the subconscious. Luo Hongwu finds the people he was looking for — people living, dead, as-yet-unborn. Or does he? I can’t say I understood everything, but I sure experienced it. This dazzlingly opaque film is one-of-a-kind.