Controversial European Directors. Films reviewed: The Favourite, The House that Jack Built

Posted in 1700s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Horror, Lesbian, Movies, Psychopaths, Royalty, Satire, Thriller, UK, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 7, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

This week I’m looking at two movies in English by controversial European directors from Denmark and Greece. There’s a satirical horror movie about a Jack in his house; and a historical dramedy about a Queen in her palace.

The Favourite

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

It’s England in the early 1700s, a time of heavy makeup, high heels and elaborate wigs. (I’m talking about the men here). Women, on the other hand, rule the country. At the top of the heap is Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) a long-suffering widow. And always by her side is her childhood friend Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz). Her husband is leading a battle in France, leaving Sarah free to her own devices. She advises the Queen about when to go to war and whose taxes should pay for it. Together, they – not the male politicians – decide where the country should head.

Until one day, when a new woman appears on the scene, upsetting the delicate balance. Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s naïve cousin, shows up at the palace gates asking for a job. She is pretty and speaks with an upper class accent but she hasn’t been rich since her father, a compulsive gambler, lost her in a card game when she was still a teen. Now she’s single again and penniless. They put her to work as a scullery maid where the other servants treat her cruely. But gradually Abigail learns how to play the game.

She seduces a young aristocrat she meets in the woods with the aim of marrying up. And she manoeuvres her status in the palace by “accidentally” running into the Queen as often as she can. She expresses sympathy for the sad Queen and the rabbits she keeps as pets to replace all her lost children. While Sarah can be cruel and domineering – she dresses in dominant, tight black bodices, and sends withering looks at Anne when she gets too sentimental – Abigail presents herself as a dainty ingénue, devoted to the Queen’s happiness.

Is it all just an act? And can she replace Sarah as the Queen’s favourite?

The Favourite is a brilliant comedy – based on historical facts – about two women fighting for the Queen’s favour. It’s also a love triangle, about what happens in the royal bedchambers behind closed doors. It’s by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose unique style I’ve loved since his first film Dogtooth almost a decade ago. All his movies (Alps, The LobsterThe Killing of a Sacred Deer) have a strange stilted, faux-naïve style to them that puts some people off. His characters always seem slightly out of place in their suburban homes. But by setting it in an 18th century royal palace, suddenly the dialogue (Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara) seems witty, not stilted, and everything makes perfect sense.

With its exquisite costumes, beautiful musical score and great acting, especially Coleman and Weisz, this is a great movie.

The House that Jack Built

Wri/Dir: Lars von Trier

Jack (Matt Dillon, in a despicably good performance) is an independently wealthy engineer who would rather be an architect. He is building himself a house. But he is also a perfectionist with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) which makes him a captive of his own fear of failure. Each version he tries to complete ends in frustration. So he turns to other ways to express himself artistically.

But he’s also a psychopath with no moral sense so first he has to teach himself to fake normal emotions so people will trust him. He uses these new skills to meet women, often at random, and murders them. He takes the bodies to a huge walk-in freezer, poses them, and then send his photographs to the tabloids as Mister Sophistication. These are his “works of art”.

And despite how obvious and blatant his killings are – he even brags to the police that he’s a serial killer – nobody ever tries to stop him.

The film is narrated by Jack’s voice, off camera, confessing all to a man named Virgil (Bruno Ganz) in a reference to Dante’s Inferno. Jack tells Verge about a few of his more than 60 murders, which are shown in explicit detail on the screen. The unnamed victims – strange characters all – are played by Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sophie Gråbøl, and Riley Keough (Elvis’s granddaughter).

Is Jack the epitome of evil? Or just an amoral idiot? And will he ever be punished for what he did?

The House that Jack Built is Lars von Trier’s latest work, and like many before – Antichrist, MelancholiaNymphomaniac – it’s a tough movie to watch. Excruciating, actually, because you know there’s going to be more horrible violence coming up. I was in a constant state of cringe through most of the movie.

But in retrospective it seems very elegant and funny, a self-referential exercise in comedy/ horror/satire. Like most of von Trier’s movies, it’s told in chapters and sub-chapters, bookended by Jack and Virgil’s conversation. It’s also filled with repeated cultural references, visual and audio, including Glenn Gould Plays Bach, Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video, David Bowie’s Fame, William Blake’s drawings and Delacroix’ The Barque of Dante… even clips from von Trier’s own movies.  Jack compares his “art” — the murders themselves and the arranged bodies — to the works of these great artists.

This film is Lars von Trier’s reply to past accusations of being a nazi, a misogynist, a bigot and a narcissist. Here he invents a character that combines the worst elements of all of these, and spews it back at the viewers in triumphant, hideous glory.

One thing: the screening I went to was a total sausage fest. The audience was maybe 99% male — rockers, hipsters, film geeks, von Trier fans and Incels — so when parts of the audience burst into laughter and applause when Jack violently attacks and mutilates yet another nameless female victim, it just added to the general creepiness of the experience.

The Favourite opens today in Toronto; check your local listings; and The House that Jack Built opens next Friday in theatres and on VOD.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

2 Responses

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  1. Best Movies of 2018! | said, on January 11, 2019 at 2:37 am

    […] Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built […]

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  2. […] the early 20th century in Birmingham, England. Young J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult: The Favourite, Warm Bodies) is an orphan who finds himself in impecunious circumstances. Luckily, a wealthy […]

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