“If you feel like screaming, I definitely think that you should”: The House that Jack Built and the continued pervasiveness of the art/ horror debate in contemporary cinema

Curator's Note

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.     


There are some absolutely fascinating thoughts here on a film I very much need to see, and I completely agree that some examples of "extreme" horror are frequently elevated through cultural narratives surrounding "art cinema" that are designed to separate them from mainstream genre movies. I think the introductory comments on "New French Extremity" are particularly interesting given that the term was not originally intended to be especially flattering to the films often grouped under that label! In retrospect, though, "New French Extremity" has drifted to the other side of this art/trash debate as it is now frequently used to suggest an "artistic" or "avant-garde" movement in France that is distinctly separate from the (so-called) "torture porn" boom that was happening in America at roughly the same time – so while it was a term originally used to denigrate the French films, it has since become just another synonym for "elevated genre," albeit one applied to a specific national cinema.

It is fascinating how horror reqiures an added on term - Art House, art cinema - or just phrases in french - to align it with some credibility. As Craig says here, just another synonym for the "elevated genre" status that appears to be required. What this post and Craig's comments bring to mind is the ever changing goalposts regarding notions of acceptability - lets say we look at this again in five, ten years time, and see where we are then. 

Great piece, Tom. I've yet to see THTJB, but was struck by a lot of reviews which struggled for definition in attempts to tackle questions of morality (Von Trier for making it, the audience for watching it). This review does something rare by asking "Is this art? Is this vile? Can it be both?", offering a more nuanced consideration while many seemed quicker to dismiss the film as just the latest example of von Trier's self-indulgence and critical provocation (which, of course, shouldn't mean his work is exempt from artistic consideration anyway, as is well demonstrated by the Hawkins quote you use here). 

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