Director Lars Von Trier seems to slither up on some people the wrong way, so if you've seen his other movies (Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves) and didn't like them, chances are slim that Dogville will do it for you. Indeed, some movie critics have declared the film "anti-American." The truth, however, is that even though Dogville is set in an isolated, Depression-era Rocky Mountain town, Von Trier's film focuses on human paradoxes, not American ones.
Dogville is difficult for other reasons, though its challenges are rewarding. The entire three-hour movie takes place on an empty sound stage. Chalk outlines and simple fixtures (a chair, a jump rope) depict the sleepy town. The minimalism is startling, and, at first, discomforting. But by the film's end, however, an outstanding cast -- Nicole Kidman, Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Davies and Chloe Sevigny -- makes the empty set seem as vivid and complicated as the story itself. Which brings us to the next difficult part: Von Trier's message.
Critics have called Dogville everything from "unapologetically cynical and miraculously imaginative" to an arrogant film experiment that feels as if it will never end. It's a cynical film from a cynical artist: the nightmare for the dream that was Wilder's "Our Town."
The film moves slowly, sectioned in chapters and guided by the narration of John Hurt. Dogville's main character, Grace (Kidman), is a mysterious woman who literally stumbles into the town, desperate for shelter. It's obvious she's running from something, but her plight remains unexplained - until the ending.
A young townsman (Bettany), considers himself the moral backbone of his village; he pities Grace and convinces the townspeople to give her refuge. Reluctantly, they do so. Grace is at the mercy of the townspeople's acceptance or denial, and we watch as she goes from a nuisance to a valued community member, then back to an outsider who's abused and repressed and finally to a slave.
The subtle shifts in her situation are highlighted as examples in how collective thought helps compromise our innate morality, our primal understandings of right and wrong. Von Trier seems to force the realization that humans, like animals, will always take advantage of a weakling -- and that for such transgressions, we deserve to be punished.
Publication date: 10/21/04