Movie Review
Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard

nOTE: I’m generally of the mind-set that avoiding "spoilers" tends to, in part, negate the purpose and value of film criticism. However, this is a film that would likely lose a considerable amount of its first-viewing impact if one knows going in what's going to happen. Dogville has not yet opened commercially in the U.S.—but it will undoubtedly rank among the very best films to debut here this year. While I will try my best not to discuss specific plot points in detail, you still might want to wait to read this review until after you've seen the film for yourself. If you've already seen it or are just not particularly concerned about spoilers, read on.

Contemporary cinema has known few figures as genuinely eccentric and blatantly audacious as Lars von Trier. In 1995, a group of Danish filmmakers, headed by von Trier, founded the almost absurdly rigid Dogme movement. A controversial attempt at stripping away the artifices of modern moviemaking, the movement's "Vow of Chastity" read as follows:

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in.
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the image or vice-versa.
3. The camera must be handheld. Any movement or mobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable.
5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
6. The film must not contain superficial action.
7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden.
8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
9. The film format must be Academy 35mm.
10. The director must not be credited.

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste. I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a 'work', as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

Von Trier's latest and perhaps greatest film, to date, breaks most of these commandments that he himself played a crucial role in establishing. In fact, Dogville turns the Dogme ethos on its head, and it's arguably even more shocking, and certainly more aesthetically radical, than Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, von Trier's defining contributions to the movement (though only the latter complies completely with the rules listed above).

The film opens with an intertitle reading "The film 'DOGVILLE' as told in nine chapters and a prologue." As John Hurt narrates in a manner reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss cartoon, we catch, in the film's opening shot, a god's-eye glimpse of the tiny titular township, the camera peering down on its residents while they go about their daily routines. We can see everything there is to see from this angle because the film is set entirely on a nearly-bare soundstage, with buildings, mulberry bushes, the local dog, Moses, and pretty much everything else in Dogville (aside from its inhabitants) indicated merely by chalk outlines. The acting (by a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany [playing a character named Thomas Edison, Jr., presumably a stand-in for von Trier himself], Stellan Skarsgard, Patricia Clarkson, Chloe Sevigny, Lauren Bacall, Philip Baker Hall, Jeremy Davies, and, in the best cameo role of the new millennium, James Caan) is intentionally and purposefully stagey. A harsh, brilliantly executed indictment of Anytown, USA, this is a film that, for its spare, stark theatrical approach, might appropriately be described as Our Town by way of Bertolt Brecht.

A lot of American reviewers really seem to resent von Trier attempting to criticize the old U.S. of A. without ever having stepped foot here. My feeling is that, in a way, it actually makes for a more interesting film. Stanley Kubrick, who lived the last few decades of his life in England, had similar complaints leveled against Eyes Wide Shut upon his final film's release. Both are all the more telling as views of America from the outside looking in. Responding to allegations of anti-Americanism at a Cannes press conference, von Trier said, "I'm not talking about how America is, because I do not know. I only get all of these images. I would love to start a 'Free America' campaign, right, because we've just had a 'Free Iraq' campaign. That's how I feel. You can say I'm a communist. I'm not. But I would like a free America because I see a lot of shit in America from over here. I'm sorry, I don't how it comes to me. Maybe it comes to me from journalists who are lying. But this is the image I get in my position, so take it or leave it. I don't know anything about America. I'm just a mirror."

The aspects of American culture that von Trier addresses most perceptively in Dogville are our much-maligned foreign policy and the way we treat our poor. On both accounts, his intended message is as razor-sharp as it is as effectively ambiguous, and its ability to be just as easily read in a number of different, conflicting ways only heightens the film's sociopolitical impact.

Of course, just about every von Trier film can also be interpreted within a religous framework, and his latest effort is certainly no exception in this respect. Centering on a woman named Grace (Kidman), it's a carefully constructed allegory, where Christian charity and martyrdom explode, shockingly, into furious Old Testament wrath. Within an oeuvre defined by the cruel victimization of saintly females, Dogville is a film that, in its flooring penultimate chapter, reverses the usual tables, only to implicate von Trier himself, whose self-criticism here is every bit as incisive as any vitriol spewed America's way.

Bjork, after winning Cannes' female acting award for her performance in von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, pledged to never act again due to how traumatic her experience had proven. On von Trier she commented, "The thing about making that film that upset me most was how cruel Lars is to the woman he is working with. Not that I can't take it, because I'm pretty tough and completely capable of defending myself, but because my ideals of the ultimate creator were shattered. He needs a female to provide his work soul. And he envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming. And hide the evidence. What saves him as an artist, though, is that he is so painfully honest that even though he will manage to cover up his crime in the "real" world, his films become a documentation of this 'soul-robbery'. Breaking the Waves is the clearest example of that." Ms. Guxmundsdóttir might just get a kick out of Dogville; it's where the Von Trier heroine, at last, strikes back—with a vengeance.

Whether you admire this film or flat-out despise it, you certainly won't walk away unaffected. It's as devastating as it is deeply troubling. By the time David Bowie's "Young Americans" kicked in, accompanying the haunting still photographs flashed over the closing credits, I was breathless and more genuinely shaken up than I've been by a film in a very long time.

By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2004-02-20
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