Lars von Trier: hailed film-maker, professional provocateur

19th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Lars von Trier, who on Thursday was barred from the Cannes Film Festival over remarks about Hitler, is regarded as both a brilliant auteur and an unabashed provocateur.

Born in Copenhagen on April 30, 1956, the Danish director has since his debut at the age of 28 never shied away from innovative and artistic projects.

He has often divided critics, but impressed festival juries, with a succession of ambitious and almost always controversial films that have made him one of the most iconoclast and central figures of European cinema today.

He tested the limits of taste, however, when he told a news conference gathered to hear about "Melancholia" -- in the running for the Palme d'Or -- that he sympathised "a little bit" with Adolf Hitler.

He later apologised for his words, saying he was "not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced (or) a Nazi," but he was nonetheless declared "persona non grata" by festival organisers who kept "Melancholia" in competition.

When it comes to von Trier, today 55, history often seems to repeat itself: time and again he causes a ruckus and is criticised for crossing the line, at the same time as he is hailed for his audacity.

Last year, also at Cannes, his "Antichrist," which was also vying for the Palme d'Or, caused heated debate but allowed leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg to win the festival's award for best actress.

Von Trier had until this week enjoyed a 27-year love affair with Cannes, laced with prizes in a number of categories starting with the technical award he won for his debut film "Element of Crime" in 1984.

In 2000, he took the Palme d'Or for "Dancer in the Dark," while the best-actress laurel went to its star, Icelandic pop singer Bjork.

But later he said he had treated Bjork as a tyrant, and their cooperation ended in an acrimonious split with him calling her a "mad woman" after she tried to block the film's screening because of cuts to her score.

Cannes also handed a Grand Prix award to von Trier's "Breaking the Waves," which became an international hit despite alienating some critics with its story of redemption and self-sacrifice by the simple-minded wife of an oil-rigger. Its feminist detractors dubbed it "breaking the wives."

And his 1991 film "Europa" took home the Cannes jury prize.

The director -- whose fear of flying has led him to travel between European festivals in a camper van -- has constantly sought to use new styles and take on difficult subjects.

With other Danish directors, including Thomas Vinterberg who made the 1998 "The Celebration," he launched the Dogma-95 group, which made a so-called "vow of chastity," proscribing a back-to-basics mix of hand-held cameras and natural lighting in a bid to recapture the spontaneity of the early filmmakers.

Von Trier's 1998 Dogme film "Idiots" caused outcry over its touchy subject -- portraying young adults who go around pretending to be mentally handicapped -- and its graphic sexual content, and even provoked shouts of protest in the auditorium when it was screened in Cannes.

With "Dogville" (2003) and "Manderlay" (2005), the first two parts of a trilogy, von Trier again took a novel approach by presenting his vision of America -- the setting of a number of his films, but a place he has never visited -- crudely and with chalk sketches on the floor as the only scenery.

He has also tried his hand at television with the acclaimed Danish mini-series "Kingdom's Hospital," and has not held back from jumping in as an actor on several projects, including in "The Idiots."

The cinematic enfant terrible has long insisted on the importance of making films that create polemic.

In an interview with a French newspaper in 2005, after "Manderlay" hit the screens, he said he was happy to be "politically incorrect, because that means bringing up problems, discussing them, which is the basis of democracy."

© 2011 AFP

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