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Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2004
'Our Town' put through the wringer
There are directors I love, directors I hate, and then there's Lars von Trier, the guy who's going to give me bipolar disorder. Go back and look at my reviews of his films. I called 1997's "Breaking the Waves" "daring" and "deeply moving" and praised von Trier for returning "magic to cinema." Fast forward to late 2000 and "Dancer in the Dark": "an uneven, misguided and arrogant work" in which "von Trier seems to be daring the viewer to resist the story's inanities"; "a fraud of a movie" that "falls flat on its ass."
Well, average out those two reviews, and you end up where I am with the Danish director's latest work, "Dogville," which, as with the above two films, drops a pure-hearted, put-upon heroine into a narrow-minded community. The great and the gawdawful are here in equal portions as von Trier's curious blend of emotional intensity and postmodern distancing cancels itself out.
Von Trier, the founder of the Dogma '95 school of filmmaking (featuring a set of "rules" designed to keep a project from getting too slick) has made it a point to try something new with each film, and for that, if nothing else, he commands some respect.
In "Dogville," he chose to re-create the small 1930s Rocky Mountain town of his story on a 60 × 30 meter Swedish soundstage. With no attempt at scenery or backdrops, the cast wander around a town that's demarcated by lines of tape on a black floor -- people mime knocking on doors or hoeing fields. It's like watching an early rehearsal of a play; you almost expect to see the film's star, Nicole Kidman, wander on with a script in her hand.
Of course, von Trier does break his own rules: Actual cars appear on the set (presumably having his cast mime driving would be a bit too Monty Pythonesque), and sound effects are used to give some reality to the invisible environment.
Von Trier has spoken highly of Brecht's work, and also an experimental production of "Nicholas Nickleby" by the Royal Shakespeare Company, in which stage hands visibly moved the scenery and props. For von Trier, it's the "alienating" effect he admires here, but for what purpose is unclear.
Presumably, combined with his trademark rough-and-tumble DV approach to filming, it's an attempt to shake the audience out of their comfortable relationship with how they experience film. When it works, it pulls in the focus on the characters and concepts, elevating the story to a kind of abstract parable. When it fails, it seems awkward and pretentious, a deliberate attempt to deny the viewer the pleasures of cinema -- the medium's ability to capture the specifics of time and place in a way that theater cannot.
One is reminded of Louis Malle's last film, "Vanya on 42nd Street," which focused on a rehearsal of the Chekhov play "Uncle Vanya," with the cast in street clothes on a bare stage. Like that film, "Dogville" shows us that good performances transcend the trappings of costume and set. But von Trier is no Chekhov. Despite the best efforts of the stellar cast, with people like Lauren Bacall, Philip Baker Hall and Jeremy Davies in even the smaller roles, "Dogville" remains a simplistic and contrived parable, a hyperbolic piece of anti-Americanism at a time when clear-headed critiques of American values and assumptions are sorely needed (seeing as the rest of the world is being told to conform to them).
Kidman plays Grace (heavy-handed symbol No. 1), a young woman who is on the run from gangsters and who seeks refuge in the remote mountain community of Dogville. She's helped by Tom Edison (heavy-handed symbol No. 2, played by Paul Bettany), a writer and philosopher who convinces the suspicious townspeople to let her stay for two weeks, while she will work for them to earn her keep. Grace bonds with certain town residents (a scene with Ben Gazzara playing a blind man who refuses to acknowledge his condition is particularly moving) while ominous asides portend a day of reckoning. "If it isn't hard, it isn't punishment," growls one of the town's many severe moralists when Grace is reluctant to spank a child.
When the police come looking for Grace, the good people of Dogville insist she must double her workload if she is to stay. Before long this exploitation has extended to public humiliation: Grace is chained like an animal to a heavy neck collar and gang-raped by the town's menfolk.
Now von Trier could have set his film in, say, India, where caste prejudice in the villages allows atrocities like the above to continue even today (see "Bandit Queen"). But the idea of making a film connected in some way with reality obviously proved less attractive to him than fashioning a Disneyland of Ugly Americans. Some have said this is not just about the United States, that von Trier is condemning small-minded self-righteousness and intolerance regardless of nationality. Maybe.
But the director has stated that "Dogville" is the first in his projected "Lost Opportunities" trilogy, explicitly focusing on America. He rams this point home in the film's final minutes, in which a startling sequence of photographs of real U.S. squalor and violence are set to David Bowie's swaggering "Young Americans."
It's a credit to the cast that we stay involved in the film to the end despite the preposterous scenario. Bettany is great as the big-hearted do-gooder whose selflessness disappears on a dime when Grace won't shag him, and James Caan, as Grace's gangster father, arrives with biblical menace in the film's last act.
After the female martyrs of his last few films, Grace proves to be an exception, setting aside her pure-hearted goodness in favor of brutal payback (admittedly, an American vice). In a triumph of Old Testament wrath over New Testament turning the other cheek, the hardened gang boss convinces his daughter that forgiveness is a form of arrogance, because it assumes others shouldn't be held to her own high moral standards. I don't know if I buy that, but I suspect von Trier knows a thing or two about arrogance, so perhaps we should listen.