In her foundational work, Cutting Edge: Art Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde, Joan Hawkins details the prevailing features of the twentieth-century avant-garde aesthetic as follows: [t]he breaking of taboos surrounding the depiction (and performance) of sex and violence, the desire to shock (épater) the bourgeoisie, and the wilful blurring of the boundary lines traditionally separating life and art’ (2000: 117).
Historically, these aesthetics have been attached to various examples of ‘extreme’ art cinema, perhaps most prominently ‘The New French Extremity’, but also examples of independent, transgressive, hardcore-horror cinema. The apparent differences here lie in the cultural distinctions made between salacious torture and violence used in genre cinema (usually resulting in censure), and the same kinds of material rendered as more ‘acceptable’ in the contexts of the art-house/ avant-garde. This is a debate that has seemingly resurfaced amidst distinctions of ‘elevated’ horror cinema positioned against other, lower forms of expression. Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built (2018) stands as a recent example of how these distinctions can be interrogated, as the film acts as a rumination on the very nature of art itself.
The trailer accompanying this entry reflects on the nature of art, representation, and atrocity as the titular Jack ponders the following: “Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they are expressed instead through our art”. As a cipher for von Trier reflecting on his oeuvre, Jack is unapologetic for the levels of violence he has inflicted (which include child murder and genital dismemberment).
Described as an ‘agent provocateur’ and ‘persona non grata’, von Trier has faced accusations of misogyny alongside the sustained use of ‘extreme’ imagery in his later films that detail callous violence and trauma (largely in relation to female self-abnegation). Alongside Antichrist (2009), The House that Jack Built is the second of von Trier’s films to be aligned with the horror genre (specifically, the serial killer film). As such, The House that Jack Built has emerged at a moment where the boundaries between art, horror, and exploitation are being questioned once more, and issues of cultural value are being disputed.