This is not a review. I left The House That Jack Built after 100 minutes, at a moment when the central character began to cut off the tits of a woman he called ‘Simple’, having previously drawn incision lines around her breasts with a marker he made her get for him and then psychologically tortured her. The moment I left was when I turned my face away from the sight of the breast being cut off, but could still hear the amped-up sound of a blade sawing into flesh and the screams of a woman - and, in turning away, met the eyes of the woman sitting next to me, who was also averting her eyes from the violence onscreen; and, having cowered with her for two seconds, I decided to leave before I was put through more funny games.
This is not a review. I did not see the whole final act of The House That Jack built, and so will not discuss Lars Von Trier’s use of sets or his direction of actors. I will not critique his cinematography. I will not dissect his dialogue in the opening scene, and the ways it helps to establish character and plot.
This is not a review. When I left The House That Jack Built, it was because I could no longer remember why I was doing this anymore. I could suddenly not recall why films did this; I could not remember why the torture, abuse and murder of women was a subject matter, to be assessed by me after being made to endure it. Being in Cannes for the film festival shows you that you can pick anything for the subject of your film — anything at all — so it does bear asking why Von Trier has chosen to depict, say, a woman made to witness the brutal death of her children, and then be shot herself, in the face, in unsparing close-up. Filmmaking — and indeed all art — involves a contract between the creator and the beholder: the creator makes an offer, which the beholder, by watching, accepts. Harold Pinter and Michael Haneke have written plays and films which hinge on this agreement, far better than Von Trier: works that call into question the moral acquiescence of the audience, the collaboration of the spectator in the barbarity depicted onscreen. Von Trier blithely, or perhaps stupidly, asks us to accept the very terms of his film, and to judge the movie on what he has set out to do — namely, to accept that the violence depicted here, the torture and abuse, can be a parable for Von Trier’s own abusive behaviour towards women, and the way his films have enacted, again and again, the suffering of women. But I do not have to accept those terms; we do not have to collaborate with Von Trier in deeming this a subject. And, incidentally, the abuse of women is a poor metaphor for the abuse of women.
This is not a review, but a genuine attempt to understand how violence has been so normalized, how we can have become so blasé about terror and aggression. I’m writing because when I recoil from brutality, when I flinch from people being dragged screaming across floors or beaten in the face, I am in the minority, and my friends and colleagues are not tormented, but in fact are surprised by my feebleness and may even rejoice in the bloodsport, in the game-playing. This is not a plea for bowdlerized films, or films that reject power dynamics and violence, that hide from politics; we live in a world of violence, and movies must also reflect this, and can use shock to alarm and subvert and of course delight. I understand the visceral kick that film offers when it sports around with death. But I am still early in my filmgoing career and already sick of heartless men playing loveless games; of the way, for men who have never been at risk of attack, who have no reason to fear the world, the violence on this planet can be simply another playground to have fun in.
In Jackie Brown, there’s a scene where Robert De Niro’s character shoots Bridget Fonda’s character dead because he is so frustrated with her and wants to shut her up. I think of this scene when I see films sometimes, because I aim to consider the artistic merit of films, and I believe it is artistically less good to kill your character than to let her speak.
I don’t want to watch any more films in which all the female characters are killed.
Imagine you’re looking at a blank page, which is the beginning of your screenplay, the beginning of everybody’s screenplay. You can write anything here, whatever you want. You roll your sleeves up, give a Carrie Bradshaw look into the middle distance, which is where you find all your best ideas, and begin writing. Your film, which is to be staged by a crew, voiced by actors and recorded on film for the purposes of being seen in the world: what will it be? You can write a film that requires the dead bodies of women to be arranged in comical poses, as an arch metaphor for your own tyranny — or you can write something else. You choose.
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