DOGVILLE written and directed by Lars von Trier, produced by Vibeke Windeløv, with Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Stellan Sarsgård and Patricia Clarkson. 178 minutes. A Zentropa production. A Lions Gate release. Opens Friday (April 2). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies Rating: NN Rating: NN
Dogville is a three-hour amalgam of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Shirley Jackson's The Lottery and Brecht's Mahagonny mounted on an almost bare stage by the chief provocateur of European cinema. Lars von Trier claims never to have seen or read Our Town, but John Hurt's voice-over makes that rather hard to believe. He definitely knows his Brecht; Dogville is his imaginary America, just as Mahagonny is Brecht's, and Nicole Kidman is his Pirate Jenny.
Von Trier is a dazzling technical director. The Element Of Crime and Europa are indecently audacious, the work of a director with Welles-sized ambitions and visual flair. He's so proficient that he sets himself bizarre challenges just to keep himself interested in the process. That's the best excuse I can think of for the Dogme 95 manifesto, which basically puts the filmmaker in a very small box and has led to a lot of bad filmmaking.
Dogville's technical challenge is its defiant anti-illusionism. The set is a set, with the houses and streets drawn on the floor and the characters forced to mime actions like opening doors, which we hear opening, unlike the invisible dog who never barks until the end of the film.
It's a gloriously wrong-headed effort that gives us all the disadvantages of theatre and almost none of the advantages of cinema. Yet von Trier can't resist his own impulse toward the striking image. The overhead shot of Kidman's Grace "escaping" Dogville in the back of a truck full of apples, whose top we see through as if it were a scrim, is as striking and beautiful as a Renaissance painting.
Dogville is a small town in the Colorado Rockies (we're told in voice-over) that seems to survive on subsistence agriculture. The apple harvest is a very big deal. One day a stranger, Grace, arrives on the run, and the town has a meeting to decide what to do with her. They take her in, but occasional visits from people looking for her have the effect of gradually reducing her status from welcome member of the community to servant to chained sex slave for the town's men.
The naturally excitable Americans see von Trier's settings as anti-American. Well, he is, in the way of fashionable European intellectuals, but he's really a deep-dyed misanthrope.
Brecht imagined America as a wild town full of gangsters and whores and saloons - in other words, as a funhouse mirror of Weimar Berlin. In Dancer In The Dark and Dogville, von Trier's America is cruel, greedy and treacherous. That is, a small-town version of the film industry.
It's hard to find a character in any of von Trier's films with any sort of nobility or even good intentions, aside from the heroines of Dancer In The Dark and Breaking The Waves, who are sort of simple-minded saints rather than actual characters. It's as if the only way von Trier can see the heroic in the human is to make characters so damaged that they're unaffected by everyday constraints.
More fun than Dogville proper - and a lot shorter - is Dogville Confessions, a making-of film that screened at Cannes and that I hope Lions Gate will add to the DVD. Von Trier's performance, a portrait of the director as passive-aggressive creep, is a more interesting and annoying dramatic creation than any in his films.