If Danish writer-director Lars von Trier can be counted on for one
thing, it is in making thoroughly unique motion pictures, unlike any
seen in the past. Using a minimalist filmmaking approach (von Trier
was the creator of the short-lived Dogme movement), 1994's "The Kingdom"
was an eerie, dread-filled Danish miniseries about a haunted hospital,
not to be confused with "Kingdom Hospital," the current television
remake bastardization by Stephen King. 1996's "Breaking the Waves"
was notable for its striking balance between humanistic brutality
and near-incendiary spiritualism, further enriched by a breakthrough
performance from Emily Watson. And 2000's "Dancer in the Dark" could
very well be the most unusual and despairingly downbeat musical ever
put to film, a ruthless jab at the American court system and death
penalty laws that featured a stunning turn by singer Bjork.
Lars von Trier returns with "Dogville," the audacious first part of
his planned "America" trilogy. It has is no secret that von Trier,
although hav ing never stepped foot in the country, is vehemently
anti-American, and "Dogville" proves this statement with a venomous
exclamation point. The film was controversial when it played at last
year's Cannes Film Festival, and it will most certainly continue dividing
audiences now that it is playing in the States. Whether one agrees
with von Trier's ideas that America is synonymous with filth and greed
ultimately makes no difference in the grand scheme of things. This
is a one-of-a-kind film, a gutsy experimental exercise that pays off
with its bold style and its spellbinding plot developments and narrative twists.
In a story set in a small Colorado town in the Rocky Mountains, circa
1930, one would clearly expect to find sweeping exterior vistas and
accurately detailed production design and art decoration. Not here.
The greatest achievement of "Dogville" is that the entire film—all
three hours of it—takes place on a stage with bare black and white
backdrops, and it does n't once feel the least bit stagy. The houses
and other major landmarks of the community are clearly laid out with
chalk marks on the floor, and this includes the gooseberry bushes
and even one of the family's pet dogs. Without hardly any vertical
sets, the residents of the town, even when they are inside their homes,
are always in plain sight for the viewer. When they open doors, they
close their fits on an invisible doorknob accompanied by the appropriate sound effect.
This filmmaking style, which probably has never been carried out in
quite the same way before, is risky in the extreme. One wrong step,
whether it be flat camera movements or an uninteresting storyline,
and the whole experiment would fall laughably or, worse, monotonously
on its face. Lars von Trier assuredly knows what he's doing, though,
and the finished product is simply luminous, allowing for the viewer's
infinite imagination to take hold throughout and visualize the town
in their own personal mind. Most surprising of all, this peculiar
set format is easily gotten used to within the first ten minutes.
Amazing, too, how dynamic and purely cinematic the movie actually appears.
Grace (Nicole Kidman) comes to Dogville one night in a desperate effort
to elude her father (James Caan), a dangerous mob boss whom she wants
nothing to do with. Grace almost instantly meets aspiring writer and
inventor Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), who is sympathetic to her situation
and convinces the rest of the townspeople to allow her to stay in
their community. To live in Dogville without being a longtime resident
has its price, however, as Grace is gradually turned into the town
slave, working at all of the houses for minimal pay, getting blackmailed
and raped, and ultimately unable to escape.
Little by little, it becomes apparent that "Dogville" is a diatribe
against American values, culminating in a meanspirited end credits
montage scored to David Bowie's "Young Americans." One must a sk themselves,
however, whether the vintage photos glimpsed at the conclusion are
accurate portrayals of the country's lower-class. Reluctantly, they
are, at least in a generalized capacity, and the viciousness which
von Trier uses to make his point is alternately disturbing, narrow-minded,
and brilliantly honest. It is rare in today's politically correct
times, where any form of self expression is disdained and feared by
President Bush, to find a filmmaker so ballsy. Agree with him or not,
Lars von Trier should be applauded for making his personal beliefs
known and not compromising them for anyone.
Continuing the director's skill in working with top-notch actresses,
Nicole Kidman (2003's "Cold Mountain") is remarkable, bringing an
innate goodness to her Grace that is all the more tragic when she
is maliciously used by the townspeople and then spit out like curdled
milk. Appearing in every scene once she makes her entrance, the Australian-born
Kidman guides the handheld camera through the town—and the viewer
through the film—without ever seeming to try, and she does it with
an effortlessly believable American accent, to boot. The audience
sides with Grace through and through, which only makes the unexpectedly
harsh climactic decision she makes toward the town seem all the more morbidly just.
As the unreliable Tom Edison, who claims to fall in love with Grace
even as he brazenly, if unknowingly, throws around his own hypocrisy
in her face, Paul Bettany (2003's "Master and Commander: The Far Side
of the World") inhabits his role with vigor and fleeting bits of empathy.
Ably filling out the rest of the town members are a smorgasbord of
noteworthy talents that include Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson (2003's
"The Statio n Agent"), Chloe Sevigny (2003's "Shattered Glass"), Ben
Gazzara (1999's "Summer of Sam"), Philip Baker Hall (1999's "Magnolia"),
and Jeremy Davies (1999's "Ravenous").
"Dogville" is another consummate triumph on Lars von Trier's filmography,
if not reaching the lofty heights of "Dancer in the Dark" or "Breaking
the Waves" then certainly coming close. At three hours in length,
and divided into ten sections (nine chapters and a prologue), the
film takes its time in the buildup but is never anything less than
a gripping experience that does not once overstay its welcome. Unapologetically
cynical, miraculously imaginative, and sumptuously beautiful (one
scene set during the fall's first snowfall is utterly magical), "Dogville"
is a thought-provoking time at the movies that will likely elicit
wildly differing audience reactions. Like it or not (and I most certainly
did), it is a spectacular conversation piece in a time when such cinematic
releases are becoming few and far between.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman