When Lars von Trier’s new film The House That Jack Built premiered at the Cannes film festival earlier this year, it triggered walkouts from 100-plus viewers and inspired critics to label it “grotesque” and “offensive,” and an “autoerotic ego massage” for von Trier, who was making his return to the festival after an unofficial 2011 ban prompted by his comments about sympathizing with Nazis. And the controversy didn’t end there: This week, the Motion Picture Association of America announced that they would be taking steps to impose sanctions on the distributor IFC Films after Wednesday evening’s screenings of an unrated director’s cut of the film in more than 100 cities across the U.S.
“The MPAA has communicated to the distributor, IFC Films, that the screening of an unrated version of the film in such close proximity to the release of the rated version—without obtaining a waiver—is in violation of the rating system’s rules,” the MPAA said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “The effectiveness of the MPAA ratings depends on our ability to maintain the trust and confidence of American parents. That’s why the rules clearly outline the proper use of the ratings. Failure to comply with the rules can create confusion among parents and undermine the rating system—and may result in the imposition of sanctions against the film’s submitter.”
Please, won’t anyone think of the small, innocent children trying to sneak into early screenings of Lars von Trier films?
The decision to impose sanctions will be made following a hearing by the Classification and Ratings Administration. Per THR, potential punishments include revoking The House That Jack Built’s R rating, placing a hold on any IFC Films currently awaiting official ratings, or fully suspending IFC Films from participating in the rating process for up to 90 days. While an MPAA rating isn’t legally required for a film’s release, most mainstream theaters refuse to show unrated movies, guaranteeing a significantly narrower opening for any film denied an MPAA rating.
Whatever the consequences, von Trier will likely be unfazed, seeing as how he’s made an entire career out of provoking audiences, critics, and, apparently, industry rulemakers. After the uproar prompted by the film’s Cannes debut, the director told Cineuropa that the outrage “made me very relaxed.” He continued, “It’s quite important not to be loved by everybody, because then you’ve failed. I’m not sure if they hated it enough, though. If it gets too popular, I’ll have a problem. But the reception seemed just about right, I think. In any case, this one was a pleasure to write.”
The film depicts Matt Dillon as the titular serial killer, and looks back on a handful of the most formative murders—of women, children, and animals, in graphic, gruesome fashion—of his decades-long spree. Among Jack’s victims are Uma Thurman, who accepts a ride in his creepy van, and Riley Keough, who has the unfortunate experience of going on a date with him. Of those actors who agreed to be in the disturbing film, von Trier said in a 2017 press conference, “There were so many people we sent the script to who said they would do anything to work with me, except this script. And then there were two who said yes, and I asked, ‘Are you sure?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ I think we should make a little test of their reading abilities.”