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Trollhättan, Sweden — This is the worst possible time to interview Lars von Trier. His new film, Dogville, in which Nicole Kidman plays a mysterious fugitive who is first welcomed then serially raped and abused by the residents of a small town in the Rocky Mountains, was released in Europe months ago. Only now, however, is it showing up in the States — just as he’s about to start shooting the sequel, Manderlay.
The second film in a projected “USA — Land of Opportunity” trilogy, Manderlay is about the horrors of life on an Alabama slave plantation in the, ahem, 1930s. In Trollhättan, where the film is being shot, it’s front-page news that Danny Glover will be flying into town in a couple of days. Most of the actors and crew have already assembled, and it’s a surprise, deep in the Swedish provinces, to see so many black faces in one luxurious hotel.
No doubt Trier would like hearing that, since upsetting expectations, particularly American ones, is something he enjoys. His fear of flying may have kept him from ever visiting this country, but it certainly doesn’t keep him from trying to piss us off. When Dogvillewas shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where it caused an uproar, Trier wanted to have Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played as he strolled up the red carpet with Nicole Kidman (his request was denied). At the press conference afterward he called for a “Free America” campaign in response to the “Free Iraq” campaign of George W. Bush. “That’s just how I feel,” he explained, looking red-faced and defiant as the cameras flashed. “I see a lot of shit in America.”
In the lobby of Trier’s hotel, I run into actor (and Jim Jarmusch staple) Isaach de Bankolé, a Manhattanite by way of the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Paris, and Javone Prince, a black stage actor from Britain. They’re sitting on a couch, trying to decide what to do with their free Saturday afternoon. Not much goes on in Trollhättan, a.k.a. Trollywood, though I’m told that last night some crew members put on “quite a show” for the locals at a disco in the basement of a pizzeria. There’s still snow on the ground, many of the sidewalks are frozen, and the windows of travel agencies are radiant with brightly colored ads of nubile Swedes hugging and kissing on tropical shores. As far as I can tell, there are no trolls in Trollhättan, though my hotel isswarming with kids — tiny Teutons running up and down the corridors in ski caps and wielding plastic hockey sticks.
The night before meeting Trier, I have dinner with Dogville’s producer, Vibeke Windelov. She tells me that Trier is an avid gardener and extremely intelligent. (Everyone emphasizes his intelligence.) He is also a family man, with a wife and four children. Whenever she has a practical problem — plumbing, computer — she calls Lars for advice on how to fix it. What kind of movies does he like to watch when he just wants to relax? I ask. Things like The Matrix, she answers. Definitely not Bergman, not the heavy stuff.
In other words, nothing like Dogville. Shot on a nearly bare sound stage, with chalk marks on the floor to indicate streets and houses, and actors miming the opening and closing of nonexistent doors, the film is a Brechtian mix of theater and cinema unlikely to pack ’em in at the multiplexes. “Eighty percent of what enters my skull is American in origin,” Trier once said, and Dogvilleis his attempt to construct an imaginary version of the country out of all that clutter. Like many of his films, it’s a kind of fairy tale — he hails from the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, after all — and technically, it’s a tour de force of fluid camerawork and minimalist imagination. The film co-stars Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Chloë Sevigny, Ben Gazzara and Philip Baker Hall, among others. It’s a near-A-list Hollywood cast for a film that Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot, Teflon-coated pole.
At first, Grace (Kidman), who is on the lam from Depression-era gangsters, is sheltered by Dogville’s simple townsfolk, at the instigation of its resident intellectual and moralist, Thomas Edison Jr. (Bettany), who promptly falls in love with her. Before long, however, Grace discovers that there’s something rotten in the town of Dogville, and that it’s a prison, too. It’s perfectly possible, perhaps even advisable, to take Dogvilleas a universal story that happens to be set in the States, but not everyone is buying it.
“So you’re the anti-American?” growled Miramax titan Harvey Weinstein when he ran into Trier at Cannes. “I wrote a film starring me and Russell Crowe. It’s about Ping-Pong. The players are me and Russell Crowe, and you’re the ball!”
“I thought that was very funny,” Trier says, referring to Weinstein’s comment. He’s tucking into what is listed on the hotel menu as a “Von Trier Special” — steak and fries liberally smeared with mustard and (in this case) washed down with beer and schnapps. “Lauren Bacall said to me, ‘You are one of the prominent anti-Americans!’ Then she said something very good, which I would like you to quote if you can: ‘But if you get all the anti-Americans in America to see the film, you’ll be home free!’”