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 is no secret that von Trier, although having 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 filmall three hours of ittakes place on a stage with bare black and white backdrops, and it doesn'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 fist 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 ask 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 townand the viewer through the filmwithout 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 Station 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.