Lars von Trier: A director who dares to live on the edge of darkness

When Lars von Trier's new film Dogville premieres in competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday, there will be mayhem. The paparazzi's zoom lenses will for that day exist only to snap Von Trier's leading lady, Nicole Kidman, swishing up the steps of the Grand Palais. Critics will stampede to see the film; some of them may even be trampled or injured in the scrum, as was the case when the director's last picture, the musical Dancer in the Dark, played at Cannes in 2000 (when it won the Palme d'Or). Afterwards, those same critics will stampede again, this time to praise the film to the heavens, or to decry it as somehow symptomatic of the death of cinema. There is simply no middle ground with Von Trier, no possibility of being unmoved by his work, whether it is outrage or awe that you are left with when the lights go up.

Dancer in the Dark was only a melodrama, but Von Trier pitched it at such a shrill level that many audiences and critics experienced it as some kind of dupe. The issue seems to be one of sincerity. He can't possibly be serious, the doubters protest – those harrowing fables such as Breaking The Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark, in which winsome child-women suffer unimaginably on their way to a redemptive death, are nothing more than practical jokes on shallow and susceptible audiences. Aren't they?

It's true that Von Trier can be unflinchingly sadistic; the cruelty in Dancer in the Dark, for instance, builds into a kind of comedy of excess, and we may find ourselves letting slip a strangled laugh at inappropriate moments. It is not distressing enough that Selma (played by Bjork, visibly on the knife-edge of sanity) is a downtrodden factory worker who escapes into imaginary song-and-dance numbers. She must also have failing eyesight, and a son also facing blindness. Of course, the money she has been carefully hoarding for his operation will be stolen, and Selma will kill the man who took it, and end up being hanged for her troubles after a painstakingly charted walk to the noose. It seemed grimly possible, as the film trudged toward its conclusion, that Von Trier might not even let Selma rest in peace – that she might be exhumed to make way for a shopping mall to be built on the site of the cemetery.

And then you listen to the director talk and things slot quietly into place. He is eloquent about his radically liberal Copenhagen upbringing, in which he was left to his own devices. "What happens when you give someone complete freedom is the child has to be its own authority," he observes. "When there's no one to say, 'Do this or do that, go to the dentist, go to bed', then they have to be their own authority. And the difficulties that arise simply from going to bed were incredibly traumatic for me. In some way, I think even if my childhood was very loving, I missed the love that an authority that defines parameters can bring. Because that is a form of love."

When he was dispatched to a junior school, his life fell apart. The teachers treated him poorly; his fellow pupils bullied him to such an extent that he dreaded breaktimes and the unknown humiliations that they promised. But as he rifles through his school days, you notice something. His eyes are twinkling. He's smiling – smirking even. It's not uncommon for people to assume a facade of amusement when tapping into personal trauma, but in Von Trier's case it appears to explain something about his films as well as his life. The humour and the anguish are colours on the same palette, bleeding into one another to create a pungent new shade. It is misguided to seek definitive truths from an artist whose very life is founded on variables – whose formative years were starved of any instruction that didn't emanate from within, and who discovered from his dying mother that the man he had called father for his whole life had in truth played no part in his conception.

We should instead look to Von Trier for those instances of rhapsodic confusion that few other directors dream of conjuring. Who else would have had the audacity not only to make The Kingdom, the eight-part Danish television series that is his masterwork, but to cram it with so many startling, daredevil subversions? This bizarre horror-cum-soap opera featured among its characters a doctor who attempts to silence the young girl left brain-damaged by his incompetence, and a woman who gives birth to a fully-grown man. What gave the series its kick was Von Trier's masterful manipulation of tone. The doctor's story gradually warped into a bad-taste farce in which he dumped his victim in the laundry chute just to be rid of her accusations. Conversely, the narrative involving that monstrous offspring was played straight, and became all the more poignant for its underlying absurdity. It's doubtful that such complexities will survive in the Stephen King-penned remake set to air next year on American television.

This confidence as a film-maker came to Von Trier early. As a boy, his mother gave him a Super-8 camera on which he shot short films that displayed traces of the ambition and experimentalism to have characterised his adult work. One short, made when he was just 10, features a virtuoso tracking shot taken from a moving bicycle; much of the film was shot in sunlight on stock designed for indoor use, lending the colours a frazzled vitality. While his peers were trading bubblegum cards, Von Trier was dreaming of building his own camera crane.

It may seem outrageous that he was permitted to abandon education before his years at junior school were out, but it paid off. When he wasn't lazing around on a raft drinking white wine, he was acting the lead in the Danish television series Clandestine Summer, or hard at work on his miniature epics. When he enrolled at the Danish Film School, he considered himself seasoned enough to pick fights with his tutors, and earned himself a new name. Prior to joining film school, he was Lars Trier, but anyone so clearly born to wield a bullwhip and loudhailer plainly deserved that bolshy "Von". Whatever his teachers outlawed – flashbacks, voiceovers, captions – Von Trier would find himself irresistibly drawn toward.

Throughout his life, Von Trier has been obsessed with rules, having grown up with none to speak of. To this end, he established the Dogme95 manifesto with three other Danish directors: their "Vow of Chastity" exhorted film-makers to reduce cinema to its most visceral level (no overdubs, no special effects, only hand-held cameras to be used). Dogme95 attracted enough sceptical press attention to ensure that it took on the air of a protracted April fool joke. However, behind the hoopla, there was a genuine exploration of how our sense of liberation can be increased and enhanced by the restrictions that we impose on ourselves.

His characters, too, find themselves wrestling with the rule-book – Bess (Emily Watson), in Breaking the Waves, is a passionate newlywed whose reckless compliance with her husband's sexual demands transforms her into a martyr in her remote Calvinist community. Or else they are struggling, as Von Trier did, with the absence of guidance: one reason why The Idiots, Von Trier's abrasive Dogme film, feels so raw could be that in its story of a group of privileged middle-class friends pretending to be mentally disabled, the director found the most effective method yet of telling the story of his own life. When he received three prizes at Cannes for his 1991 film Europa, and called the jury president Roman Polanski "a dwarf", didn't he advertise his kinship with those radicals in The Idiots who lunge toward anarchy when what they most want is for someone to rein them in?

A decade ago, Von Trier engineered a situation where he was in conflict with his own career. His first three films – known as the "E" trilogy – were dense with preciousness, poetry and technique. The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and Europa were visually spellbinding but airless; Von Trier's meticulously choreographed style squeezed much of the life out of his cinema, and created films that were closer to tableaux than to moving pictures. In the mid-Nineties, he had a crisis. The late Katrin Cartlidge, who starred in Breaking the Waves, remarked during the shooting of that film that Von Trier had "the feeling of someone going through a personal Perestroika. Somebody who is trying to rebuild himself."

That's precisely what he was doing. Out went the ostentatious visual poetry, in came hand-held cameras and a savage, messy species of storytelling and performance that could not have thrived in those earlier, inflexible, movies."It's good to make mistakes," he assured the cast of Breaking the Waves, encouraging them to be fearless. The result was one of the most devastating experiences in recent cinema. Overblown, perhaps. But something to be reckoned with: a force of nature.

He may never match the pure shock of Breaking the Waves, if only because it represented both emancipation and epiphany for him in film-making terms. But the signs are surely promising for Dogville. "It's very arty," Von Trier has said. "We're not going to sell many tickets for this one." We shall see. It is one thing to make an experimental drama set in the American Rockies but shot entirely in a Copenhagen studio with the set represented by words on the floor, and the actors forced to mime the use of doors and windows. However, the masterstroke – the Von Trier touch – is to crowd the cast with star names (Kidman in the lead, James Caan and Lauren Bacall further down the cast list). He is currently in a unique position that no one in recent cinema besides Stanley Kubrick has enjoyed. He is the darling of what remains of the arthouse circuit, and yet he is powerful enough to have the ear of Hollywood's most bankable stars. After a lifetime of trying to shake off the terrible liberties of his youth, he is once again operating by his rules, and his alone.

Life story

Born 30 April 1956, Copenhagen.

Family Only child of middle-class communist academics Ulf and Inger Trier (although Inger was revealed on his mother's deathbed not to be his biological father); first wife: Cæcilia Holbek Trier (divorced 1996, they have two children); he remarried Bente Frøge (1997).

Education Dropped out of junior school, but accepted by Danish Film School, graduating in 1983.

Film career First feature, the stylish psychological thriller The Element of Crime, was released in 1984. Selected works since include: Epidemic (1987); Europa (1991); The Kingdom (eight-part television series later released in cinemas in Britain (1994 and 1997); Breaking the Waves (1996); The Idiots (1998); Dancer in the Dark (2000); Dogville (premiering at Cannes and starring Nicole Kidman).

Awards Technical Grand Prize, Cannes, for The Element of Crime; Grand Prix, Cannes, for Breaking the Waves; Palme d'Or, for Dancer in the Dark

He says "I believe I am Superman."

They say "I think he's a genius, but one who doesn't always believe in his own genius. He's always running away when instead he needs to calm down and search inwards, inside himself" – Ingmar Bergman.

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