Mel Gibson's Worst Nightmare
EW talks to the unconventional director, Lars von Trier - The Dogville director makes no aplogies for his quirks, criticisms or contempt
Lars von Trier, the most audacious director in the world, is also among the most phobic. He fears crowds, fires, hospitals, shellfish, and the specter of death. Most famously, he dreads almost every form of modern transport and so scoots about Europe in a camper van. A March Saturday finds the camper in the Swedish countryside, parked in front of a four-star hotel. Looking the part of an intellectual guerrilla -- olive cargo pants, black T-shirt, Trotskyite eyeglasses -- von Trier shows off its spare interior with pride.
''I've driven Nicole Kidman in this camper,'' he says puckishly. He's also driven Nicole Kidman to tears, but...how is she as a passenger? ''She believes in my driving. She trusts it.'' Then, for kicks, he adds, ''Couldn't we find some porno in here?'' We'd been chatting earlier about his first meeting with Kidman when she was signing onto his latest film, Dogville (see review, page 41). She asked if his reputation for being mean to his female actors was warranted. Von Trier assured her it was not; inwardly he was chuckling about an X-rated tape he had near at hand, titled The Lady and the Whip.
Von Trier's notoriety among actors and film cognoscenti as a sadist is inseparable from his track record of edgy brilliance. It must be the brilliance that gets Hollywood actors eagerly trekking up here, to a soundstage 175 miles north of Copenhagen, the director's home base. They come to experiment and push their boundaries and bask in the von Trier glower. Patricia Clarkson jetted to the Dogville set on four days' notice solely on the basis of Breaking the Waves, which earned Emily Watson an Oscar nomination for her turn as a woman who, in devotion to God and husband, whores herself out. The movie was harrowing enough to establish von Trier as the art house's prime polarizer when it opened in 1996. ''That's when I thought, 'My God, I hope I get to work with this man,''' Kidman says. ''I crawled out of the theater, literally just went home and got into bed for two days.... I know it was seen as misogynistic, but I really didn't see it that way.'' One British reviewer who disagrees wrote that he'd be happy to see it ''banned on purely ideological grounds.''
That controversy was nothing compared to the one surrounding Dancer in the Dark, the 2000 musical melodrama starring the singer Bjork as an immigrant betrayed by her neighbors and the U.S. justice system alike. When the credits rolled at its Cannes premiere, cheers mingled with boos. Some detractors thought the movie anti-American; others concurred with its lead actress, who called it ''emotional pornography.'' There was more booing yet when it won the Palme d'Or.
Thus provoked, von Trier embarked on USA -- land of opportunities, a formally daring trilogy exploring a country the director, who of course does not fly, has never seen. In Dogville, its first installment, Kidman's Grace, fleeing gangsters, turns up in a 1930s mining town where she's first sheltered and then subjugated, an ordeal that culminates in sexual slavery. The end credits juxtapose images of abject poverty with David Bowie's ''Young Americans.'' The movie is as inflammatory as anything von Trier's done in his 20-year career, and that's just the way he likes it. ''We do a lot of test screening,'' says Vibeke Windeløv, a producing partner. ''Lars is very eager to know that the public understands what he's saying. But if they don't like what he says, he doesn't care. That he probably thrives on.''
"Skal!'' Von Trier toasts, and tips back the aquavit that will incline him to be philosophical over lunch -- to share, for example, his equation for keeping everyone in line and thus achieving happiness: ''Be 30 percent more unkind to women than you would like to be. With actors, 37 percent...I tested it.'' The formula for films is simpler yet: ''I'm just working to do the opposite of all the things I've been told.'' In the case of Dogville, that meant drawing inspiration from Bertolt Brecht's ''Pirate Jenny,'' a song about a barmaid settling a score with a town that mocked her. The approving treatment of vengeance contravened the moral teachings of his parents, who saw revenge as ''the one feeling not needed anymore for human beings.''
Lars Trier was born in Copenhagen 47 years ago, the only child of communists with an absurdly antiauthoritarian view of parenting. By age 13 or so -- von Trier is sloppy with dates -- Lars had had his fill of playground bullyings and was allowed to drop out of school. He began passing the days with his standard-8 camera. By the time he graduated from film school in 1983, he had already, in the grandiose tradition of Sternberg and Stroheim, adopted his pompous von. Soon earning notice for the virtuosity of the thrillers The Element of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1987), he was also putting in long hours as an enfant terrible.
''Nobody in the state of Denmark wanted to have anything to do with Lars,'' says Peter Aalbak Jensen, co-owner of von Trier's production company, Zentropa Productions. ''He was arrogant, crazy. He dressed up in black leather, looked like a skinhead, and insulted everyone around him. The only comforting element was that he was so tiny he was not physically threatening in the least.'' When his post-Holocaust drama Zentropa won what he considered mere consolation prizes at Cannes in 1991, he tossed his Technical Grand Prize to his technicians and his Jury Prize into the Mediterranean. He thanked the jury president, Roman Polanski, by calling him a midget.
Since then, helped by his second wife and his antidepressants, he has relaxed, though issues linger. In the '80s, he says, his mother died of cancer. ''She told me on her deathbed that my father was not my father.'' She'd had an affair. Lars was the evidence. He then went to her house and smashed her most treasured possessions.
The wielding -- and, conversely, perversely, the surrendering -- of control is what makes von Trier run. For starters, it's unlikely he would be able to make a movie as alienating as Dogville if he weren't running the company. Zentropa has developed into a Nordic sensation -- producing commercials, TV shows, and, yes, smut. (Its Puzzy Power division, since spun off, recycled the jailhouse set of Dancer in the Dark for its 1999 film Pink Prison.) When he was the ringleader of Dogma 95, a ''rescue action'' composed of directors out to save moviemaking from artifice, he signed a ''vow of chastity'' (cameras must be handheld, shooting must be done on location...) and persuaded brash young filmmakers to follow suit. Then he wriggled free of its constraints after one film, 2000's The Idiots.
He is unnaturally exacting. Dogville costar Paul Bettany has written that von Trier is ''Woody Allen mixed with a dominatrix.'' Bjork has said his cruelty amounts to ''soul robbery.'' Von Trier counters: ''I have a pretty good relationship with actors. [But]if the actors want to have control over their characters, that is something that does not exist.'' He is unwilling to mince words. ''He's honest,'' Kidman says. ''At times that can be incredibly painful.'' And yet, she says they're still close: ''I keep e-mailing him saying I wish I was there.'' She had her chance: At a Cannes press conference, von Trier asked her to publicly commit to the full USA trilogy. She saved her demurral for later. The part's been taken up by one Bryce Dallas Howard, age 23. ''We found out,'' von Trier says, ''that she's also the daughter of an American director and, mostly, the main character on Happy Days.'' Jensen confirms that von Trier was ignorant, while watching casting tapes, of Bryce's being the daughter of Ron: ''We couldn't even remember her name, so we called her Hot Lips.''
Part 2, Manderlay, will pick up some months after the events of Dogville. ''Grace,'' von Trier says, ''is going to Alabama, you know'' -- crooning Brecht/Weill -- ''mooon of Alabaaama, and she is going to a place where they still have slavery, and she's gonna free this place, and America in general, from slavery.'' One week into shooting, he and Howard are getting along famously; she acquitted herself well in the masturbation scene. But he's got something else on his mind: ''I would like to say one thing: I like myself very much. I hate myself as a person, but I like myself as a director.'' He's laughing now. ''That's why I cling to the profession. One of these days, we had a lot of stress on the set and, you know, there's a hundred people running around -- raahh-aahh-aahhh. And I had no anxiety in the whole wide world. I was completely calm. Because it's my game'' -- more panting laughter -- ''it's my game we're playing, and nobody will ever be able to come and say, 'You didn't do this right. You should have done this.' No, because I set the rules, it's my game -- and that might sound unbearable as a person, but I think it can get some results.''