The controversial auteur Lars von Trier is squaring up to the United States with a trilogy of films that is being seen as a damning indictment of the American way.
The first film, Dogville, in which Nicole Kidman plays a woman put through the wringer in a small town in the Rockies during the prohibition era, was the talk of the Cannes film festival last year. Based on the Bertolt Brecht song Pirate Jenny, it is being interpreted as an allegorical warning to the US, over its war on terrorism, that it will reap what it sows.
Von Trier infuriated American critics three years ago when he drove home to Denmark in his camper van (he hates flying and won’t go on ferries) with the Palme d’Or award for Dancer in the Dark, his unsettling musical about an immigrant, played by the singer BjÃ¶rk, who is sent to the scaffold despite her innocence of the crime of which she is accused.
Some American critics were irritated at Von Trier’s handling of such a prickly political issue. In a calculated slight to them and to Hollywood — which Von Trier accuses of making films about other countries with little regard to their sensitivities — not one of the new trilogy is to be shot in the US.
“All my life I have been critical of American society,” says Von Trier. “I haven’t been there but my perception of the US is based on a lot more information and images than the Americans had when they made the film about Hans Christian Andersen. The US is a much bigger part of my consciousness than Denmark ever was to the people who made that film.
“As a young man I was a communist and I still feel that I belong on some sort of left wing. I don’t believe that American society is very nice to people who don’t have much — to put it nicely.”
Dogville was shot on a set in Copenhagen, having been inspired by British director Trevor Nunn’s TV film of his Nicholas Nickleby for the Royal Shakespeare Company, in which actors talked directly to camera. The story, however, has grittier origins in the song Pirate Jenny from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, with the conclusion that US dominance comes at a price.
In the final verse of the song that Brecht wrote with Kurt Weill in 1928, Jenny tells the pirates to kill all those who treated her like dirt when she was scrubbing floors. “Then they’ll pile up the bodies / And I’ll say, / ‘That’ll learn ya!”’ Von Trier told the Danish journal Film that “in one way [Dogville] is critical of the US, but at the same time not, because its similarities to today’s Danish politics are striking. There are also parallels with the war in Iraq, which wasn’t intended but it is something I am very much against. I’m ashamed of the Danish participation. I have no sympathy or respect for this war.”
Von Trier has thrived on conflict. He has often been accused of misogyny for putting actresses through hell: the atmosphere on the set of his film Breaking the Waves earned the movie the sobriquet Breaking the Wives, and BjÃ¶rk has indicated that making Dancer in the Dark was no fun at all.
Kidman, too, had a falling out with Von Trier after they wrapped Dogville. The two had sworn undying dedication to each other at Cannes, and Kidman had been slated to appear in all the movies of the trilogy of which Dogville is the first instalment, but it was later announced that Kidman would not, in fact, star in the next two movies.
After weathering a bad press from American critics who saw all too clearly that Dogville was a thinly veiled assault on American values, and missing the Palme d’Or, which many thought was rightly theirs, the Australian star and Danish director went their separate ways.
Kidman, who revealed at a press conference for the film that she intends to quit acting eventually, had agreed to do the next two films, Manderlay and Alabama. But it was Von Trier who, a few months after Cannes, cut her loose. The official explanation, from Copenhagen producer Vibeke Windeloev, was that Kidman would not be free in time for Von Trier, who was impatient to get moving on the shooting of Manderlay.
“The Americans might be used to film schedules being set after the availability of the stars, but we just couldn’t postpone until it fitted Nicole’s,” Windeloev told Screen International.
Kidman had already committed to the remake of The Stepford Wives, and then to playing Olympias, Alexander the Great’s mother, for her director friend Baz Luhrmann.
Von Trier is now in post-production on Manderlay, due for release next year. It is set on a former slave plantation in the American South. Kidman is replaced by Bryce Dallas Howard.