Dogville

| April 16, 2004

Over the years the consistent reactions among viewers of Danish director Lars Von Trier’s films range between a strong love or a fierce hate, for both the films and the man. Seldom does opinion lie somewhere in between. With Dogville, its safe to assume that the word on the street will lie on the side of harsh criticism, mainly by the mall crowds that were duped into seeing the film because it stars Nicole Kidman. In reality, it’s a specialty film that happens to feature stars. It may also end up being one of the strongest films released this year.
The film is a grand experiment, taking place entirely atop a giant flat stage. Beyond bits of furniture, a window or the hanging church bell only markings left on the ground indicate most of the sets, as though someone created an overhead floor plan and literally reproduced it on the stage. For students of sound design it offers an impressive example of the power of sound to convey an environment: The actor will open an imaginary door and though we may not see it, we hear it. Cinematically, creative cinematography and lighting are used to create the cool summer day and the light, night snowfalls. Your likelihood of enjoying the film hinges on whether you buy into this world from the very beginning. At an almost exact three hour running time Von Trier seems to be daring us to.
Dogville takes its name from the fictional Colorado town set during Great Depression. Kidman plays Grace, a woman who comes upon the town while fleeing the mob for circumstances initially left unexplained. She comes in contact with Tom Edison, Jr. (Paul Bettany), an idealogical young writer who takes on her case and asks the town to shield her for a two week trial run. Von Trier has always been an actor’s director. (Rumors that he comes about those performances through emotional bullying) For her part, Kidman’s the best she’s ever been displaying both vulnerability and strength in the same moment while Bettany is proving himself to be one of the most reliable actors today with his performances over the past two years. Von Trier was also able to gather an impressive cast of character actors including Patricia Clarkson, Stellan Skarsgard, Chloe Sevigny, Ben Gazzara and Philip Baker Hall and rounded it out with classic film icons Lauren Bacall and Harriet Andersson.
Eventually Grace finds acceptance though it’s not long before the repressed jealousy, rage and lust of the townspeople preys upon her. Their betrayal of Grace becomes both physically and emotionally violent, beginning with her rape for which the town’s women believe she was an active participant. Before long she is trapped in Dogville becoming a slave to each person’s bidding. Though it will spoil everything to say more the film does conclude with an excellent glorified-cameo by James Caan with a scene that will leave audiences arguing afterwards over the definition of arrogance.
When debuted last year at the Cannes Film Festival the depiction of Americans as ruthless and apathetic prompted several cries of Anti-Americanism. Is it? Well, yes, actually. Von Trier has generalized that he, in fact, does not like America despite having never been there. He never let’s us forget this is an American story through moments including the closing credits which use David Bowie’s “Young Americans” over images of poverty and devastation. (Hard for me to really get mad when he uses Bowie.) Yet, if we’re suggesting the recently popular yet ignorant point of view that questioning anything American is anti-American, then no, its does fit quite that easily. Had I been ignorant to the claims and criticisms before entering the theater I would no doubt have realized Von Trier current sentiments, particularly when the line “Are you for us or against” emits from Sevigny’s mouth. But even in recognizing this it had little effect over my opinion on the overall film. Realistically, the story could take place just about anywhere since it’s the psychology and ideologies of the characters in the film that are really in question here. Von Trier may suggest that they are American ideologies but he certainly isn’t the first to make pointed digs at its politics. Even a film like Love Actually does that.
It’s not going to be hard for audiences to make up their mind on whether they’ll see this film. A three-hour film taking place on an imaginary set with anti-American undertones? Not the best sell in the world. But those who dare may be surprised to find a thought-provoking performance piece entrusted with Kidman and Bettany and anchored by the strong vision of its director. If not, well, its Von Trier.

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