Controversial Danish director Lars von Trier arrived at the Cannes Film Festival to a standing ovation earlier this week; his horror film, The House That Jack Built, however, got an opposing reception from audiences Tuesday when shown for the first time.
Described by one critic as "vomitive" and "torturous," the film sparked more than 100 audience members to walk out during its off-competition premiere at the Palais. One reviewer, Ramin Setoodeh from the entertainment magazine Variety, said a scene during which two small children were shot with a rifle was the straw that broke the camel's back for many.
Among those who left the screening was Roger Friedman, a reviewer for Showbiz411 who wrote that the "vile" movie should not have been made.
Those who remained in the theater, however, got out of their seats at the movie's end for a six-minute standing ovation.
Von Trier goes to 'very dark places' in the film
Starring Matt Dillon as Jack, the film is listed as a "dark comedy" in which the story of a serial killer who uses mutilated corpses to create art is told. Jack fills his walk-in freezer with dioramas made of human flesh, including that of Uma Thurman, who portrays his first victim.
"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," Dillon admitted in a press conference about the movie. Cited by the Reuters news agency, Dillon said that filming those murder scenes was: "the toughest days I have ever had doing movies."
"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."
More than one audience member did not see things that way, as Vulture's Kyle Buchanan noted in a tweet.
Still, in his review, Buchanan writes that few journalists walked out of the morning's press screening. "This movie," he writes, "is literally just a series of killings with some didactic voice-over now and then. It's not exactly a story of twists and turns, unless what you're most curious about is the volume of arterial spray."
The film intersperses the violence with its psychopath protagonist's philosophical rantings. A voice-over carries on throughout the movie, creating a meandering conversation between Jack and the mysterious Verge, a wise and kind-sounding old man voiced by Bruno Ganz. Verge appears to be leading Jack to hell. At one point, he notes, "I believe heaven and hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to heaven. And the body to hell."
Read more: The issues rocking the Cannes Film Festival
A provocateur who continues to provoke
Already well-known as a provocateur, it was not unexpected that von Trier would create a scandal at the film festival. He had been considered persona non grata in Cannes, despite several wins, after joking during a 2011 press conference for his film Melancholia about "sympathizing with Hitler."
Although he said he was surprised to be asked back to Cannes in 2018, the decision to show his film outside of competition was made, according to Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux, due to its content. In an email to IndieWire, Fremaux wrote, "His film is out of competition because it is such a singular object, a subject so controversial that this was his best place. … And whether we like it or note, we are dealing with a great film and a great filmmaker."
Fremaux, who wrote that he believed von Trier's Hitler comments had been "blown out of proportion," defended the director to IndieWire. "Lars von Trier has been very stupid, an idiot, but he's not anti-Semitic."
Rather than avoiding the topic this year, however, von Trier included it in his film. Clips of the German dictator as well as newsreel footage from Nazi concentration camps appear in the movie.
A reaction to the #MeToo movement?
Tati Rosen, a professor at New York University, interpreted the film as von Trier's reaction to the #MeToo movement, which has been front and center at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
Von Trier himself was swept up in the controversy over sexual assault in the film industry after the singer Björk, who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her role as a single mother losing her sight in von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, spoke about being subject to negative attention and harassment by a "Danish director."
When asked by Reuters, however, about the film's intense cruelty, particularly to women, he acknowledged that was true, but replied that it was meant in an ironic fashion. "Yes, it is just an excuse, but I'm old enough now for excuses."
ct/eg (Reuters, dpa)