The cruel and crazy world of Lars von Trier

A Hollywood star has quit after the Danish director insisted a donkey is killed on set, the latest demand from a film-maker who revels in his monstrous reputation. By Matthew Sweet
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Most actors know that working with the maverick Danish film-maker Lars Von Trier means they may be required to suffer for their art. Bjork ran away from him into the woods, ate her costume, and swore she would never make another movie in her life. Nicole Kidman grinned and bore the humiliations she suffered at his hands - but walked out of the cinema when she saw the results.

Now a few weeks spent in the bizarre world of Lars Von Trier have proved too much for one of the leads of his latest film. John C Reilly, the pock-marked, potato-faced star of Chicago, The Gangs of New York and Boogie Nights, walked off the set of Manderlay after the director asked him to take part in a scene featuring the slaughter of a live donkey. Reilly has been replaced with the Slovene actor Zeljko Ivanek, who appeared opposite Nicole Kidman in Dogville, the first instalment of the trilogy of which Manderlay is part. And the donkey, it seems, has been eaten by the actors, under Von Trier's direction.

In Hollywood, where representatives of the American Humane Association monitor the treatment of any animal appearing on set - from Geoffrey Rush's parrot in Pirates of the Caribbean to the cockroaches that swarmed all over Will Smith in Men in Black - filmed acts of butchery would not be countenanced. Although Manderlay is set in the American South, Von Trier's fear of aeroplanes - one of the many phobias in his extensive repertoire - have obliged it to be shot in studios at Trollhaettan in Sweden.

The film's producer, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, has insisted that none of the other Americans in the cast - which includes Danny Glover, Lauren Bacall and Willem Dafoe - have raised any objections to the content of the scene. "We could probably kill six children for a film," he added, in an interview with Denmark's Ritzau news agency, "without anyone raising a fuss".

Ever since he put Emily Watson through the emotional mincer in his first big international success, Breaking the Waves, Von Trier has nurtured his reputation for gleeful directorial cruelty. In The Idiots, he told the story of a cult leader who obliged his followers to take part in orgies and wander around small towns pretending to have Down's syndrome - a situation that was mirrored, inevitably, in the production of the film.

In Dancer in the Dark, his Palme d'Or-winning musical, he subjected Bjork to such intense pressure that she went Awol from the shoot. In Dogville, he cast Kidman as a young woman who takes refuge in a small Colorado town where, after having first been taken care of by the inhabitants, she is soon reduced to the condition of slavery. Kidman seems to have received similar treatment from her director - resolved, she says, by a three-hour slanging match in a forest. Von Trier, who is a great advocate of the restorative qualities of Prozac, also claims to be unsettled by these experiences. "I just cry," he says, "when my name appears on the credits".

Actors tend to emerge from his company praising his genius or questioning his grip on sanity and morality.

Udo Kier, one of his most loyal collaborators, says he would "do anything for him" - and since he once donned a giant, pink latex headpiece to play a bloated succubus for the director, we can take him at his word.

Bjork, stung by her involvement with him on Dancer in the Dark, declared Von Trier a misogynist with a propensity for "soul-robbery". Paul Bettany, who starred opposite Kidman in Dogville, called his time on the film "eight enormously long weeks in the most depressing place I have ever been to in my life" and has described the horror he felt when he discovered that he had been allocated a hotel room next door to his director. "A couple of weeks in, I tried to drag my bed away from the wall that separated my bedroom from his bedroom in the hotel. I worked out that my head was 10ft from his head while we were asleep, and I did not want that. I wanted to be an extra 5ft away on the other side of the room. Unfortunately, the bed was bolted to the floor..."

One can only guess at what carnage has really taken place on the set of Manderlay: the truth of what happens on any Von Trier shoot tends to take a year or two to emerge. First come the rumours of an actress being humiliated on set. Then there's the tricky press conference at an international film festival, with everyone on their best behaviour. Then a game of claim and counter-claim is played out through press interviews. Finally, a year or so after the movie has been released, everybody feels free to say exactly what they like about each other - and Von Trier makes delighted, unrepentant statements about the chaos he has caused. It seems to be an essential part of his creative process: drive the cast to the brink of physical and mental endurance, capture the results on celluloid, and listen to the critics cheer and jeer the result in equal numbers.

Some of his on-set mind-games are fairly gentle: on the first day of filming for Dogville, Von Trier told Kidman that he was off to look at a stash of pornographic magazines that belonged to Bettany - and left the actor to protest while he spied on the scene of discomfort from the safety of a convenient fire escape. Other strategies seem more baldly sadistic. "One day it would be a fairytale; the next it was a nightmare," Kidman said of her work on the same film. "Lars was gentle with me - he was gentle and soft, and then he would beat me up emotionally when he felt he needed that."

Like many actors who have survived working with Von Trier, she described her experience in the language of 120 Days of Sodom: "I believe Lars is a genius, and the way he works is extraordinary: it's so intimate. People say: 'What are you: a masochist?', and I say, no. It's more about being artistically dedicated to certain people, almost to a fault. I mean I'll damage myself in order to help them."

Von Trier's ability to inspire such self-destructive commitment from his casts is one of the reasons why his work possesses such merciless power. But this loyalty is not always reciprocated.

At the press conference following Dogville's premiere at last year's Cannes film festival, Kidman made a public promise to reprise her role in the movie's two planned sequels. Two months later it emerged that "scheduling problems" would prevent her from appearing. Had she wangled her way out of the deal? It seems not. Von Trier declined to wait for her to honour other filming commitments elsewhere, and recast the role. Another way, perhaps, of putting the actress in her place.

It is Dancer in the Dark, however, which has yielded the richest body of mythology. Bjork, the film's star, was reported to have suffered a breakdown under Von Trier's bullying, disappeared from the set, and chewed up her own costume in distraction. Von Trier claimed that the singer, who had no previous experience of film acting, had proved incapable of separating herself from the character she was playing - and as her character was a cash-strapped immigrant single mother doomed to die on death row, this, he argued, naturally created difficulties.

Bjork, however, sees it rather differently - and recently struck back with a brutal assessment of the director, issued via her official website: "You can take quite sexist film directors like Woody Allen or Stanley Kubrick and still they are the one that provide the soul to their movies. In Lars von Trier's case it is not so and he knows it. He needs a female to provide his work soul, and he envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming, and hide the evidence."

Von Trier wasn't always such a magnificent monster. (He wasn't always a "von" either - he first adopted the aristocratic prefix in his student days.)

Before he crashed on to the international scene with Breaking the Waves, he had a reputation as a scrupulous craftsman of highly aestheticised films. (The Kingdom, his bizarre medical soap opera set in a hospital overtaken by occult forces, offered the only hint of the terrors to come.) His reinvention coincided with a period of tremendous personal upheaval. In 1995, his dying mother confessed that his biological father was an artist whom she had seduced in order to have a child blessed with creative genes. In the course of the following year, Von Trier dissolved his first marriage, converted from Judaism to Catholicism, and abandoned a painterly form of cinema for the raw, rough-cut violence of Breaking the Waves. These fragments of biography don't explain why he chose to adopt cruelty as his principal directorial tool, any more than they explain his predilections for golf buggies and vintage porn. But they do suggest that he used himself as a kind of guinea pig before he put the thumbscrews on Bjork and Kidman.

His most deliciously nasty trick, however, may be being played right now on the set of Manderlay. When Kidman relinquished the heroine's role, he might have recruited a huge American star to fill her place. Instead he picked a relative unknown named Bryce Dallas Howard, who, four years ago, had a bit-part in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

It seems inexplicable, until you realise that Bryce Dallas is the daughter of Ron Howard, the goofy star of Happy Days who has since become one of Hollywood's safest, most good-natured and most reliably bankable directors - and is therefore, presumably, an icon of everything Von Trier despises. Just imagine what he might do to her - and how she might come to envy that donkey.

IN THE FRAME

Breaking the Waves

Emily Watson has sex with other men to help her paralysed spouse.

The Idiots

Cult story with some of von Trier's most brilliantly excruciating work.

Dancer in the Dark

Bjork, above, works all hours for her son and does a few musical numbers with Catherine Deneuve.

Dogville

Nicole Kidman seeks refuge in a small town with no buildings.

FRIENDS AND ENEMIES

"He needs a female to give his work soul and he envies them and hates them for it, so he has to destroy them during the filming."

Bjork

"A couple of weeks into [filming Dogville], I tried to drag my bed away from the wall separating my bedroom from his in the hotel."

Paul Bettany

"One day it would be a fairytale [on the Dogville set]; the next it was a nightmare. Lars was gentle ... then he'd beat me up emotionally."

Nicole Kidman

"Lars was very confident about what he wanted to do and what he needed, which is necessary when you want to improvise as much as him."

Catherine Deneuve

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