Directing In The Dark

Since his 1995 critically acclaimed "Breaking the Waves," Danish director Lars von Trier has been hailed as a filmmaking genius--and dismissed as an eccentric blowhard. His latest film, "Dogville," starring Nicole Kidman as a sweet-natured girl on the lam, proves he is both. "I am liberating the cinema, like America has liberated Iraq," von Trier boasted to NEWSWEEK the day after "Dogville" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last month. "I'm not satisfied with the way things are, and furthermore, I'm willing to do something about it. I'm the Che Guevara of the film world, and I will end by being betrayed."

Betrayal is a consistent theme in von Trier's life. Raised a Jew in Copenhagen, the only child of communist academics, Trier--as he was known then--was so bullied at school that he dropped out. He eventually entered the Danish Film School, where he added the aristocratic participle "von" to his name. In the mid-'80s he made his first trilogy of feature-length films, "The Element of Crime," "Epidemic" and "Europa," which won the Grand Prix at Cannes. After the awards ceremony, von Trier memorably declared that he deserved the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or, and called the jury's president, Roman Polanski, "a dwarf."

He has been betrayed in his personal life, too. In 1995, von Trier's mother confessed on her deathbed that her husband had not been the boy's biological father. His real father was a classical musician and a Roman Catholic. Von Trier converted to Catholicism, split from his first wife, started taking Prozac for depression and set to work on "Breaking the Waves," a riveting drama about a bride whose crippled husband asks her to make love to other men and then tell him about it. When it premiered at Cannes, "Breaking the Waves" left audiences weeping and went on to win the Grand Prix.

At the same time, von Trier reconsidered his method of filmmaking. He and fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterberg dreamed up a manifesto called Dogme 95, with 10 "commandments" that included filming only with handheld cameras, in natural light and without a score or sound effects. Von Trier himself has made only one true Dogme film, "The Idiots," which was pummeled by critics. But he has retained many of the manifesto's elements, such as using handheld digital cameras to shoot both "Dogville" and "Dancer in the Dark," a melodramatic anti-capital-punishment musical that won Cannes' Palme d'Or in 2000.

In fact, "Dogville" is an extremely anti-establishment film, both cinematically and politically. Filmed on a soundstage in Trollhattan, Sweden, it is a stark theatrical production, with no sets and only a few props. "When I saw the chalk sketch of the dog on the floor, I said, 'Oooh-kay'," Kidman told reporters at Cannes with a laugh. Her agent advised her against doing the film, the first of a trilogy, and with good reason: von Trier is known for being difficult to work with. The Icelandic singer Bjork had such a bad experience during the filming of "Dancer in the Dark," her first movie role, that she swore off acting forever. Kidman had her troubles, too. "The first week was tricky," Kidman said. "But then we went for a walk in the forest--there were tears and screaming--and had a heart-to-heart. We came out with a pure commitment to each other."

Like "Dancer in the Dark," "Dogville" attacks America's social mores. Set in the 1930s, it is the tale of Grace (Kidman), who hides out in a remote Rocky Mountain village. After reluctantly embracing her, the townspeople learn of Grace's shady past, and use it to keep her in check even after they rape her and lock her in chains.

"Dogville's" reception at Cannes was, predictably, wildly uneven. American critics declared it amateurish and anti-American, while Europeans called it revolutionary. The jury didn't agree: "Dogville" was shut out at the awards ceremony. Von Trier hasn't said publicly how he feels about the snub. But being von Trier, how could he view it as anything other than a betrayal?