A colleague of mine is convinced that Lars von Trier makes films for one reason alone: to antagonise critics. This would be a reckless and expensive hobby. But if it were true, and if the Danish director truly is the arch-manipulator he's widely considered, then critics are always liable to fall into his trap. Damn a Von Trier film to hell, and you give him what he wants; rave about it, and he's also won. The only appropriate response, my friend argues, is to wax lukewarm, to award a cautious three out of five each time. But while you might regard the devious Dane's films as masterpieces or monstrosities, no one ever seriously considered a Von Trier film merely not bad.
Whatever responses Von Trier expected when he took his new shocker Antichrist to Cannes this year, polite approval won't have been among them. Confronted with the film's suffocating Gothic psychodrama, its sexual frenzies and grisly mutilations, viewers were stunned or repelled – or in many cases, laughed outright, suspecting that the director was playing a satanically cynical joke. That end dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films are informed by a Christian spirituality – a wind-up, surely, rubbing salt into the viewer's wounded sensibility? Don't be sure – Von Trier claims he has watched the Russian director's Mirror at least 20 times. Von Trier only added fuel to the fire in a Cannes press conference in which he stated flatly, "I am the best film director in the world." Well, the waggish maestro was simply having a laugh again – wasn't he?
The same questions invariably arise in discussions of the 53-year-old auteur: it's always a matter of good versus bad faith, sincerity versus slipperiness. Is everything he does and says really a conceptual jest at the expense of his viewers and cinema? Is it possible that, even in his most extreme statements, Von Trier is in fact utterly sincere?
Furthermore, is Von Trier really so sublimely canny that simply by watching his films you fall willy-nilly into some Machiavellian snare of his devising? Personally, I doubt that he always knows exactly what he's after. Yet Von Trier certainly has a genius for marketing himself as smarter and stranger than the average auteur. He has long had a habit of issuing communiqués and manifestos that have variously cast him as young iconoclast, finger-wagging elder statesman, and ludic grand master devising arbitrary new sets of rules just to see what fanciful games emerge.
To accompany his debut feature The Element of Crime (1984) – a claustrophobic thriller filmed in shades of bilious yellow – Von Trier issued his first manifesto, a call to arms attacking the "Great Inertia" he saw prevailing in cinema, a malaise that caused once-vital film-makers to settle for the bland and sexless. "These hardened old men must die!" Von Trier fulminated from the barricades. "We will no longer be satisfied with 'well-meaning films with a humanist message', we want more of the real thing – fascination and experience, childish and pure, like all real art."
There were echoes of François Truffaut's attack on a previous generation of "hardened old men" in the 1954 article that catalysed the French New Wave. But however oedipally angry his charge, Truffaut had never gone as far as the Dane's demand: "We want to see heterosexual films, made for, about and by men!"
The fevered maleness and bizarre libidinal thrust of his harangues were even more extreme in a 1990 manifesto accompanying his nightmare-like post-war drama Europa. The only thing of importance in cinema, he argued, was "this physical experience when the magic of film takes place and works its way through the body, to a trembling ejaculation... NOTHING ELSE!" The director goes on to declare himself "the true onanist of the silver screen". In his Europa, Von Trier claimed, his onanism had truly produced fruit. "At last, purity and clarity are achieved!... Just give me one single tear or one single drop of sweat and I would willingly exchange it for all the art in the world."
Such language can be taken as either demented exaltation or arcane parody. But these communiqués are far and away the most eccentric promotional tools ever used by a modern film-maker, and that's what we mustn't forget: he is a peerless self-publicist. Von Trier has regularly exploited his own image, appearing, for example, as a smirking compère between chapters of his 1990s TV serial The Kingdom. Then there are the knowingly Hitchcockian publicity portraits: for Antichrist, he poses in black, a dead raven at his feet.
Von Trier's cleverest stunt was a disappearing act: the instantly legendary Dogme 95 manifesto, signed by himself and protégé Thomas Vinterberg. Dogme 95 was not just a set of rules for back-to-basics cinema, it was also a U-turn on Von Trier's previous espousal of self-expression. "The auteur concept," the new rules seethed, "was bourgeois romanticism from the very start and thereby... false! To Dogme 95, cinema is not individual!"
The statement continued, "Discipline is the answer... we must put our films into uniform." Hence the "Vow of Chastity": the set of rules that governed Dogme film-making: strictly location shooting, no props, present-day stories only. Dogme 95 briefly galvanised the world, producing an initial body of work from the movement's founding circle – notably Vinterberg's acclaimed Festen and Von Trier's social-experiment freak-out The Idiots – followed by attempts from hordes of other directors, generally more slavish than inspired. Yet the movement's most radical proposal was never followed up: Rule 10, according to which no Dogme film would bear a director credit. If a genuinely non-authored cinema of anonymity had emerged, the rules of the personality-led film industry might really have been challenged: imagine if no director at all had turned up to explain himself at the Antichrist press conference.
Since Dogme, Von Trier the polemicist has been much quieter. But in the films, the provocation has remained intense. The director has sought out new forms, sometimes wildly counter-intuitive: Dogville and Manderlay were sprawling Brechtian dramas filmed on a bare sound stage. There was also the arguably unwatchable, certainly unhummable musical Dancer in the Dark, with 100 fixed digital cameras trained on Björk's doomed heroine.
The gamesmanship continued in the 2006 comedy The Boss of It All: here, Von Trier claimed to have abdicated responsibility as a director by entrusting the film's shooting to a computerised system called Automavision, which used a complex algorithm to determine camera positions. Von Trier may have been conning us – but if so, he was doing it by insisting he was manipulating nothing.
With Antichrist, the picture is reversed. Here, apparently, everything is personal to the utmost degree. Von Trier claims that the film, a kind of therapy, emerged from a period of intense depression and drew directly on his unconscious: "Scenes were added for no reason. Images were composed free of logic or dramatic thinking." However, in a brief "Welcome" statement published in the film's press kit, Von Trier sounds more like his old showman self: "I would like to invite you for a tiny glimpse behind the curtain, a glimpse into the dark world of my imagination: into the nature of my fears, into the nature of the Antichrist." You can credit his sincerity or not: the basic ploy of the con artist is to profess candour.
At any rate, Von Trier's singular prestige rests on a set of paradoxes. All at once, he comes across as surpassingly cynical and as an arch-naïf carried to passionate extremes in his quest for authenticity. He appears to be deadly serious and an inveterate prankster. He's seen as aloof, but also as someone who can't stop saying too much. He's a control freak who loves to relinquish command. Whatever you make of his strange, uneven oeuvre, Von Trier has, like no other director, continually tested the conventions and contradictions of auteurship. He once declared, "A film ought to be like a stone in your shoe" – and Von Trier himself continues to be a stone in the shoe of cinema, a sometimes magnificent pain you can curse but you can't ignore.
'Antichrist' (18) is released on 24 July
Just playing: How Von Trier has given us a piece of his mind
The director's baroque masterpiece– a nocturnal fantasia set in Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War. Back-projections, trompe l'oeil and visual mannerism make for a Welles-like visual extravagance that Von Trier subsequently abandoned
The Kingdom (1994, 1997)
Two seasons of a TV hospital serial that makes Twin Peaks look like Hollyoaks. The show involves psychics, demons, madness and voodoo, and somehow Von Trier was given permission to film in the actual Copenhagen hospital that gave the show its name
The Exhibited (2000)
Documentary by Jesper Jargil about one of the maestro's conceptual pranks, Psychomobile 1: The World Clock – an art installation-cum-reality show, in which live performers' actions are determined by the movements of a colony of ants in New Mexico. And this before Big Brother, mind you
The Five Obstructions (2003)
The director as Big Brother, setting impossible tasks for his erstwhile mentor, film-maker Jørgen Leth, challenged to create multiple remakes of his 1967 film The Perfect Human. Leth rises to the task with ingenuity and sang-froid. JR