Lars Von Trier has come to bury America, not to praise it, with “Dogville,” the Danish director’s first film in a trilogy about a country he’s never set foot in and has said he’s afraid to visit.
You may have heard about this film long before its arrival in theaters; “Dogville” premiered at Cannes nearly a year ago and has been playing at festivals — and dividing audiences — ever since.
Despite its aesthetic simplicity, it’s a wildly ambitious film — too long, too precious — yet its rhythms become surprisingly hypnotic. And, like many of Von Trier’s other films, including “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark,” it’s not afraid to challenge and potentially incense people.
For that reason alone, the writer-director deserves the highest praise. He has made the movie he wanted to make, regardless of critical reaction or audience response: essentially, a three-hour stage performance on film, similar to televised plays of the 1970s, with minimal props and sets.
Outlines on a black floor designate everything from houses and trees to the neighborhood dog; sound effects take the place of doors creaking open and closed. It doesn’t take long, though, to ignore appearances and become wrapped up in the story’s intensity and the power of the performances.
Told in nine chapters (which John Hurt narrates in folksy tones), “Dogville” follows the fugitive Grace (Nicole Kidman) as she seeks protection in the insular, Rocky Mountain hamlet of Dogville during the Depression.
Grace is on the run from gangsters, which makes the townsfolk reluctant to take her in. But Tom (Paul Bettany), Dogville’s unofficial leader, persuades them to let her stay if she’ll work for them in exchange.
Slowly, the residents of Dogville (played by Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Bacall, Stellan Skarsgard and Ben Gazzara, among the all-star supporting cast) become captivated with Grace for her elegance, determination and innate goodness.
But just as subtly, the people eventually turn on her one by one — for tiny mistakes, perceived slights and petty misunderstandings. At the zenith of their torment, they place a dog collar around Grace’s neck and chain her to a giant metal wheel, and the men takes turns raping her at night.
America Von Trier style
Kidman is the portrait of quiet strength and dignity throughout the lengthy ordeal, which is brutal to watch but ultimately becomes ridiculous as it spirals toward its over-the-top climax.
Tom, who has become her beau, is the only man who doesn’t take advantage of her. Instead, he orchestrates her escape, which reveals that Grace is not the woman she initially seemed.
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Von Trier has said the place he depicts in “Dogville” is “only America as seen from my point of view. ... Yes, it’s about the United States but it’s also about anywhere in the world.”
“What can I say about America? Power corrupts. And that’s a fact,” he says in the film’s production notes. “Then again, since they are so powerful, it’s OK to tease because I can’t harm America, right?”
His point with “Dogville” is that if you offer yourself to an entity that is large and powerful, like America, you’re likely to get chewed up and spit out. And if he hadn’t made that clear during the film itself, a montage of photos of American squalor — with David Bowie’s “Young Americans” providing an eerily cheery juxtaposition — serves as an unnecessary exclamation point at the end.
Von Trier’s response to his detractors has been that the people who made “Casablanca” never went to Morocco.
But come to the United States, Lars. See this place, meet these people. Go to the Rocky Mountains and see what you find.
Until then, the bark of “Dogville” will always be worse than its bite.
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