Lars von Trier's Dogville may be the least entertaining great movie since his own Dancer in the Dark, released four years ago. Dancer in the Dark spent two and a half hours detailing the escalating misfortunes of its central character, a blind factory worker played by Bjork, only to snap her neck on the gallows in its final scene. But at least Dancer in the Dark was a musical.
Dogville, by contrast, comes off as an epic travesty of Our Town, though von Trier claims ignorance of that Thornton Wilder chestnut. In his bold but excruciating new film, we find international superstar Nicole Kidman exploited, raped and enslaved over the course of three grueling hours before ... well, you'll find out.
Or at least I hope adventurous local film lovers do. For Dogville, for all of its flaws, pretensions and sheer obnoxiousness, is easily the year's most ambitious film. If it doesn't quite succeed as an aesthetic enterprise, it does have the virtue of being a film that asks the audience to meet it halfway in a difficult project that proposes to reinvent our expectations of movie entertainment. It's a tall order, and unfortunately, I suspect that von Trier is doomed to be the risk-taking artist who influences other, more accessible artists rather than fully realizing commercial success himself.
But in an era where most filmmakers have abandoned efforts to push the boundaries of film convention, von Trier stands alone in his restless experimentation. He is the only major filmmaker who tries to challenge our ingrained habits of watching movies. Notoriously, he was the ringleader of a group of Danish filmmakers who issued their Dogme 95 manifesto, a document which in decrying the decadence of contemporary filmmaking, proposed radical palliative measures such as abolishing flashbacks, voiceover narration, soundtrack music, genre films and special effects. When von Trier released this manifesto at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, Dogme 95 was dismissed as a jokey publicity stunt (which indeed it was, in part), but in the decade since, the so-called Vows of Chastity have become an organizing aesthetic of surprising staying power.
(It has been noted that the movement's title, Dogme 95, and its means of distribution have an affinity with the 95 theses Martin Luther nailed on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, thus lighting the fuse of the Protestant Reformation. For more on Dogme 95, check out the official Web site: www.dogme95.dk. )
Lars von Trier's mature filmmaking career--that is, since Breaking the Waves in 1996-- has been dedicated to demolishing the illusions created by well-made movies. In stark contrast to someone like Martin Scorsese, who will spare no expense to make sure every prop and set detail conforms to what is "real," von Trier insists, with the fervor of a Calvinist firebrand, that all images are illusions, and that cinematic eye candy is designed to lull us into passivity and slack judgment.
Recently, the New York Times' A.O. Scott published an essay which he made the provocative and true point that today's bad movies are better than ever. He didn't mean that the sadistic pulp of Man on Fire is better than the sadistic pulp of Dirty Harry; rather, Scott argued that the production values that were once the preserve of David Lean and Francis Ford Coppola are now present in every crappy movie opening every weekend: they're all slick and professional looking, no matter how vulgar the inspiration. However, Scott's observation isn't a new problem for von Trier. With his recent work, he has proposed that we reject the decorative aspects of quality filmmaking--the expensive sets, the helicopter shots, the computer generated effects--and return our attention to story and actors. This result is unmediated drama, and the quality of a movie will rise and fall on those merits.
And what are the merits of Dogville? Is it a good movie? To be honest, I can't decide. I'm only sure it's a bold, provocative and infuriating story with an audacious aesthetic stunt at its core: The film is set in the fictitious Colorado town of Dogville in the 1930s, but it was shot entirely inside of a huge Danish soundstage. Furthermore, no attempt has been made to dress the set in a realistic fashion; von Trier instead puts in furniture and house framing here and there to suggest architectural contours. Elsewhere, the stage is bare, except that the architectural footprint of the town has been marked on the floor.
Into this Brechtian set comes a mysterious young woman named Grace (Kidman), seeking refuge from gangsters. She's discovered by young Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), an idealistic, would-be writer who avoids work on his manuscript by subjecting the townspeople to lectures of self-improvement. Grace is a beautiful city girl with fine hands and an expensive coat who's utterly out of place among the town's homespun populace, but Tom convinces the suspicious, small-minded citizens to shelter her.
To win them over, Tom persuades Grace to assist them in their daily chores. So, Grace helps out at the school run by an overburdened mother (Patricia Clarkson), keeps company with a blind man (Ben Gazzara), helps tend the gooseberry bushes of an old woman (Lauren Bacall) and picks apples with a local farmer (Stellan Skarsgard). But despite Grace's selflessness, the venality of the blinkered townspeople can't be kept down. Fearful of the consequences of sheltering a fugitive--midway through, they discover the cops are looking for her in connection with bank robberies--they begin exacting larger and larger portions of her flesh.
Critics have roundly attacked von Trier for his supposed anti-Americanism, and they commonly complain that the director has never been to this country and thus has no business making a critical movie about us. In response, von Trier notes that, thanks to the global reach of our culture, economy and military, he knows far more about America than the creators of Casablanca did about Morocco. (He might have added that Shakespeare never visited Denmark, either). Rather than being reflexively anti-American, von Trier seems fascinated by our nation's swagger and optimism, and of course, by our failings.
Von Trier understands America well enough to establish apples as Dogville's primary export. The apple is the historically and biblically resonant fruit that found root in the American soil as settlers continued their expansion across our great continent. The apple also has obvious biblical connotations, as does Grace's name. Not for nothing do the townspeople sing at their Fourth of July picnic, in the film's sunniest scene, "America, America, God shed his Grace on thee." Kidman's Grace is an abstraction, a symbol of the extraordinary blessing we have received as Americans.
But the film's biggest flaw is that, for most of the film's running time, Grace is only an abstraction. Only in the film's deus ex machina finale does she have a recognizably human relationship with someone, and that turns out to be the sinister gangster (James Caan) from whom she'd been fleeing at the film's beginning. A scene of elegant repartee and moral inquiry follows between Kidman and Caan, one that wouldn't be out of place in The Sopranos.
In the end, Dogville is no more anti-American than the merciless suburban satire of The Sopranos, which is to say there's certainly bilious intent in von Trier's work. It's his limitation as an artist and entertainer that we can taste that bile so well.