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Dogville   B

Lions Gate Films

Year Released: 2003 (USA: 2004)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, John Hurt, Chloe Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgard, Lauren Bacall, Blair Brown.

Review by Rob Vaux

"I really have a yen
To go back once again
Back to the place where no one wears a frown
To see once more those super special just-plain-folks
In my home town..."
--Tom Lehrer, "My Home Town"

Danish firebrand Lars von Trier is not among my favorite filmmakers. He attains more in verbiage than paydirt, stirring up controversy without necessarily justifying it on-screen. His methods are often crude and border on the hypocritical at times; few directors so shamelessly exploit melodrama in the name of decrying it. Yet for all his huckster's tricks, he remains passionately devoted to the medium, and if we don't always buy what he says, at least he's endeavoring to say something. Dogville emerges as his strongest piece yet, shedding the half-baked fumbling of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark for a work that -- while far from perfect -- at least makes good on its ostensible thesis. It has strong edges upon which to grasp, a philosophical outlook that allows the audience to properly posit an opinion. And despite its three-hour length, it moves along briskly, silencing our fears of the foreign art house run amok.

Most striking is its indictment of home and community, concepts which most Hollywood productions consider sacrosanct. The title's idyllic small town hides a sick underbelly, full of corrupt and venal citizens swaddled in the facade of "good simple folk." Politicians invoke such figures as embodiments of decency, a fallacy that Dogville vehemently denudes. Corruption is everywhere, it almost snarls -- on Main Street USA as much as 5th Avenue boardrooms or the halls of power in Washington.

Von Trier approaches this concept as a fable, yoking his proclivities within a deliberately simplistic framework. True to form, he rejects Hollywood's too-slick "realism" for deliberate artifice -- in this case, a Brechtian soundstage that fills in for the town itself. Walls are drawn in chalk on the floor, locations titled with industrial stencils. Props and set pieces are sprinkled liberally throughout the area, along with such naturalistic elements as fallen leaves and drifting snow. It's all compounded by several formalistic narrative elements -- chapter divisions, time dilation, and an agreeably gravelly voice-over from actor John Hurt. In von Trier's earlier films, such conceits were openly indulgent; here, they blend together marvelously, producing an internally consistent universe that marks a firm departure from multiplex business as usual. Von Trier makes beautiful use of several camera tricks as well, most strikingly the overhead shots which posit the town as a sort of giant train set.

Beneath such an artificial atmosphere, Dogville's fairy-tale simplicity feels right at home -- focusing not on the implausibilities but on the greater truths they presume to uncover. The township struggles with poverty in the midst of the Great Depression. A beautiful stranger -- Grace -- arrives, pursued by her gangster father and the dark promise of power. As played by Nicole Kidman, she embodies von Trier's typical long-suffering heroine: brave, open, and noble almost to the point of farce. Initially, Dogville's citizens keep her safe, urged on by the philosophical Tom (Paul Bettany) who wishes to prove their innate goodness to himself. In time, they treat her as one of their own and she responds by helping them with their daily chores. Then gradually, their love sours, poisoned by mistrust and their own petty desires. Her workload is increased, her company shunned. Emotional attacks become common. Eventually, she's raped -- twice -- and despite Tom's stated affection for her, he proves unwilling to come to her defense. Finally, the gangsters return, bringing with them the instruments of apocalypse.

The dramatic arc is spare and unadorned, supported by Hurt's expository narrative. Von Trier brings his points home with a typically blunt hammer, leaving no doubt as to Dogville's purpose. The townsfolk turn ugly with undue convenience; their cruelty is as naked as any Jerry Bruckheimer villain (Grace is eventually chained to a wagon wheel with a dog collar). But if the surface is sometimes crude, it also allows for a deeper probing of the issues on display. Is there value in the world of Dogville? Is there morality? Or is it simply weakness, with Grace's good intentions leading only to pain? Von Trier allows her -- and us -- to grapple with such questions instead of just passively absorbing them (a tendency his earlier films, with their helpless martyrs and penny-dreadful injustice, unduly indulged).

The results give Dogville a surprising potency, turning the soap opera into a broad-ranging allegory on human nature, class warfare, theology, and any number of other issues. The proposition of Grace's humiliation as a business transaction resonates deeply, as does the notion of her servitude -- initially a luxury to the townsfolk -- becoming decadent necessity. Above all, Dogville is an indictment of exclusion, a condemnation of boundaries and of the hubris that facilitates them. The conclusions aren't pretty -- this is not a half-full kind of film -- but credit von Trier for allowing us to ponder them unmolested.

At least, most of the time he does. The structure functions best when open to interpretation; narrow it down and the simplicity becomes dogmatic. The most obvious case is the film's supposed anti-Americanism. Certainly, the Colorado setting suggests a contempt for the United States, but the sparse atmosphere makes it far more universally applicable than that. That is, until the bear-baiting final credits, featuring still photos of poverty-stricken miscreants flashed to the beat of David Bowie's "Young Americans." It has little to do with the rest of the film, perpetrating the very ugliness it presumes to condemn. Such pandering rears its head too often to ignore... and yet perhaps that, too, is a message. Perhaps the filmmakers are simply acknowledging their complicity in the corruption on-screen. Regardless of our interpretation, Dogville has the discipline to properly challenge us, to incite discussion on any number of topics, and to leave us with something to think about the next time we look in the mirror. In that sense, it's worth our admiration: if not a work of art, then at least one of conscience.

Review published 04.09.2004.

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