Lars von Trier, the most audacious director in the world, is also among the most phobic. He fears crowds, fires, hospitals, shellfish, and the specter of death. Most famously, he dreads almost every form of modern transport and so scoots about Europe in a camper van. A March Saturday finds the camper in the Swedish countryside, parked in front of a four-star hotel. Looking the part of an intellectual guerrilla -- olive cargo pants, black T-shirt, Trotskyite eyeglasses -- von Trier shows off its spare interior with pride.
''I've driven Nicole Kidman in this camper,'' he says puckishly. He's also driven Nicole Kidman to tears, but...how is she as a passenger? ''She believes in my driving. She trusts it.'' Then, for kicks, he adds, ''Couldn't we find some porno in here?'' We'd been chatting earlier about his first meeting with Kidman when she was signing onto his latest film, Dogville (see review, page 41). She asked if his reputation for being mean to his female actors was warranted. Von Trier assured her it was not; inwardly he was chuckling about an X-rated tape he had near at hand, titled The Lady and the Whip.
Von Trier's notoriety among actors and film cognoscenti as a sadist is inseparable from his track record of edgy brilliance. It must be the brilliance that gets Hollywood actors eagerly trekking up here, to a soundstage 175 miles north of Copenhagen, the director's home base. They come to experiment and push their boundaries and bask in the von Trier glower. Patricia Clarkson jetted to the Dogville set on four days' notice solely on the basis of Breaking the Waves, which earned Emily Watson an Oscar nomination for her turn as a woman who, in devotion to God and husband, whores herself out. The movie was harrowing enough to establish von Trier as the art house's prime polarizer when it opened in 1996. ''That's when I thought, 'My God, I hope I get to work with this man,''' Kidman says. ''I crawled out of the theater, literally just went home and got into bed for two days.... I know it was seen as misogynistic, but I really didn't see it that way.'' One British reviewer who disagrees wrote that he'd be happy to see it ''banned on purely ideological grounds.''
That controversy was nothing compared to the one surrounding Dancer in the Dark, the 2000 musical melodrama starring the singer Bjork as an immigrant betrayed by her neighbors and the U.S. justice system alike. When the credits rolled at its Cannes premiere, cheers mingled with boos. Some detractors thought the movie anti-American; others concurred with its lead actress, who called it ''emotional pornography.'' There was more booing yet when it won the Palme d'Or.
Thus provoked, von Trier embarked on USA -- land of opportunities, a formally daring trilogy exploring a country the director, who of course does not fly, has never seen. In Dogville, its first installment, Kidman's Grace, fleeing gangsters, turns up in a 1930s mining town where she's first sheltered and then subjugated, an ordeal that culminates in sexual slavery. The end credits juxtapose images of abject poverty with David Bowie's ''Young Americans.'' The movie is as inflammatory as anything von Trier's done in his 20-year career, and that's just the way he likes it. ''We do a lot of test screening,'' says Vibeke Windeløv, a producing partner. ''Lars is very eager to know that the public understands what he's saying. But if they don't like what he says, he doesn't care. That he probably thrives on.''