After critiquing the death penalty in “Dancer in the Dark,” Lars von Trier dispenses it in “Dogville,” an artistically experimental, ideologically apocalyptic blast at American values that is as obvious in intent as it is murky in aesthetic achievement. Danish auteur has a lot of issues he’s working out — about the U.S., power, arrogance, grace, mercy, forgiveness, revenge, truth and passing judgment, just for starters — and the way he chews them up and spits them out is, as always, deliberately designed to provoke. Shot with a top cast on a large stage bare but for a few props, hints of sets and a town plan painted on the floor, story of how a female on the run is treated by a small Rocky Mountain community during the Depression is far too indigestible for a public beyond the director’s usual audience, despite the toplined performance of Nicole Kidman. Reactions even on the specialized circuit will be all over the map, with best response assured from the Blame America First crowd.
Shown in a three-hour version in Cannes, pic will reportedly be available for theatrical runs in a roughly 140-minute cut.
Sensitive to criticism as ever, von Trier in the film’s press book admits that he was inspired to write “Dogville” by American journalists’ criticism of his audacity in making the U.S.-set “Dancer in the Dark” without ever having visited the country. If that’s the case, to call this new film an over-reaction to a slight reps an understatement of the first order, as there is no escaping the fact that the entire point of “Dogville” is that von Trier has judged America, found it wanting and therefore deserving of immediate annihilation. This is, in short, his “J’accuse!” directed toward an entire nation.
From someone who presented a wholly inauthentic account of the American judicial system in his last film in the interest of attacking it, his new Old Testament view of the world would seem to represent quite a contradiction. But then this is the director who created the Dogme 95 rules of filmmaking only to break them, so consistency is not to be expected, nor is political enlightenment from a man who, again in the press book, maintains that, “I don’t see them (Americans) as less evil than the bandit states” they have recently fought.
So if one is to take up von Trier’s overt invitation to respond to his film politically, reactions will be intense and based entirely upon one’s prior disposition, as nothing in the film is designed to persuade or change anyone’s mind. If the director wants more outraged reactions from Americans about his ignorance of their country, he’ll certainly be able to fill many clippings books with them this time out.
On the artistic side, however, matters are more complex. In a style inspired directly by the television version of the Royal Shakespeare Co.’s ’70s production of “Nicholas Nickleby,” but also reminiscent in some ways of American live TV dramas of the ’50s, von Trier has stripped his cinema down to bare essentials: actors, text, light, costumes and only token props. Ever since he launched “The Kingdom” a decade ago, von Trier has tried different means to minimize his films’ technical elements, the better to facilitate direct contact with the actors.
Ironically, “Dogville” features other devices that serve to accentuate its thoroughgoing artificiality. An curiously arch tone is set by an advisory that the tale will consist of nine chapters and a prologue, as well as by a score consisting of baroque music and 19th century-style literary narration spoken by John Hurt in an English accent, all choices at odds with the characters and story at hand.
Then there’s the overhead shot of the darkened stage, the floor of which is neatly adorned with markings indicating the location of streets, homes and other structures. Dotting the vast space is the occasional door and window frame, a church belltower, some stair supports, a bare tree and the rocky beginnings of a mountain.
After sounds of a storm and gunshots are heard, a “beautiful fugitive” named Grace (a blond-tressed Kidman) arrives in the tiny town, which is located up a dead end road. Hiding her from gangsters, would-be writer and, in the absence of a clergyman, self-appointed town philosopher and moralist Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) takes Grace in and assures her that the townsfolk are “good people, they’re honest people.”
In a strange plot construct, Tom proposes a two-week period during which Grace will offer her assistance to the citizens, who will then vote as to whether she can stay or must leave. By this artificial means, she gets to know the self-sufficient locals, who include Tom’s doctor father (Philip Baker Hall), store owner Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), blind old Jack (Ben Gazzara), Mr. and Mrs. Henson (Bill Raymond, Blair Brown), their son Bill (Jeremy Davies) and daughter Liz (Chloe Sevigny), apple grower Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard) and his long-suffering wife Vera (Patricia Clarkson), reclusive truck driver Ben (Zeljko Ivanek) and some local ladies played by Harriet Anderson, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Cleo King and Shauna Shim.
Visual approach takes some getting used to, and the knowledge that, at least in Cannes, you’re in for three hours of unvarying backdrops covered by von Trier’s usual tight, jittery camera moves and jumpy editing, forces one to brace oneself for the long haul and acknowledge the no-set approach as a metaphor for a town where no one can have any secrets and people’s private business is everyone’s business. After a while, one grows somewhat accustomed to the style without ever being allowed to forget about it, but certainly Nicole Kidman fans who wander in never having seen a von Trier film before won’t know what hit them.
With the newcomer accepted by the community and spring passing into summer, Grace begins carrying her load and is courted, albeit awkwardly, by Tom, who is far more comfortable assessing and judging his fellow townspeople than he is expressing emotion. Wanted posters appear warning of a “dangerous” missing woman, and a shift in town attitudes about the interloper lead to suspicion, mistreatment, betrayals and Grace’s eventual descent to the status of town whore, prisoner and slave.
Dialogue, much of which is delivered in monotonous murmurs, is far from inspired at best, downright goofy when it deals with such notions as the doctrine of stoicism, and preposterous when a discussion of arrogance dominates a key climactic scene. Kidman gives the film a mostly quiet, naturalistic center, Bettany earnestly copes with an overweeningly presumptuous character, and other strong actors (Hall, Skarsgard, Gazzara, Clarkson, et al.) persevere more by virtue of the force of their own personalities than by any depth in their characters as written.
Whereas von Trier in his recent “Golden-Heart” trilogy has led his heroines through an earthly hell to achieve a state of grace, he is determined to have his central character here show no mercy when it comes to punishing her tormentors. Grace is given the position of an all-powerful god, dispensing a Sodom and Gomorrah-like judgment on those among whom she formerly dwelled.
The identification with Dogville and the United States is total and unambiguous, even without the emphatically vulgar use of pointedly grim and grisly photographs of Depression-era have-nots and crime victims under the end credits, accompanied, as if it were needed, by David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” Through his contrived tale of one mistreated woman, who is devious herself, von Trier indicts as being unfit to inhabit the earth a country that has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people onto its shores than any other in the history of the world. Go figure.