“Love it or leave it” could easily be the phrase that best describes audiences’ reaction to “Dogville,” Lars Von Trier’s controversial new film that went into wide release this week. No doubt some will reject it as another example of the director’s “waif in distress” series that began with “Breaking the Waves” and continued with “Dancer in the Dark,” this time with Nicole Kidman as his beleaguered heroine. While others will find its use of theatrical devices uncinematic, and its simplistic moral order downright stupefying. Is the world, or the imagined, Depression-era America where it takes place, really this ugly?
This has led to some to label the film anti-American, especially when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival last May at the height of the negative European response to the Iraqi invasion. Von Trier denied it was anti-American, yet gave a comment that only fueled the debate: “I don’t see the American society as being very caring to the people who don’t have much. This is something I believe I ought to criticize, even though I haven’t been there.”
Interestingly the person that quote brings to mind is German playwright Bertolt Brecht who, like Von Trier, never visited America yet wrote a series of pointed commentaries set there. And when he did visit was so disenchanted that he fled to Communist East Germany after the war where he spent the last years of his life directing his own theater company. “Dogville,” then, is something of a cinematic homage to Brecht, crossed with Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
Theatrical is the operative word here since Von Trier sets his film as something you would likely see on the stage of some avant-garde theater company (say at the American Repertory Theatre.) With the assist of his set decorator Simone Grau, he represents the Colorado town of Dogville, its homes and public spaces, as something of a stripped down schematic with chalk lines dividing up the various residences with but a few props and set pieces used for utilitarian effect. To this he adds a narrator – the soothing John Hurt – who provides the background commentary that sets up the action and links its 9 sections and prologue. “Dogville” is, in this respect, the spiritual cousin to “Vanya on 42nd Street,” Louis Malle’s deconstruction of “Uncle Vanya” that set that play in an abandoned New York theater. Like that film, cinematic devices are used to amplify what is essentially a theatrical construct.
This will, no doubt, alienate some, just as the use of musical numbers disrupted the structure of “Dancer from the Dark.” But that may be precisely the point: by confronting his audience’s preconceptions, Von Trier pushes the notion of how we perceive cinematic story telling. But what is he saying in the process, and why are the citizens of Dogville being so god dam nasty to Nicole Kidman?
They aren’t initially. In fact at the onset they embrace her when she appears running from mobsters like a character out of a Depression-era gangster movie. Kidman, as Grace, is immediately befriended by Tom Edison (Paul Bettany,) the town’s dreamy philosopher who can’t seem to put his thoughts down on paper except in the most rudimentary terms. Tom convinces the other townspeople, who appear to have wandered out of Walker Evans photographs, to help her, despite the fact she has no particular skills or talents they can use. She does, nonetheless, make herself useful, performing tasks that no one realized they needed to be done before; even sparking a romance with Tom.
But things go badly rather quickly when Grace is raped by a poor farmer and is accused of striking one of his children, an odious brat out to make trouble. She is ostracized by everyone and betrayed by Tom; but has something of the last laugh. Not to give anything away, but her revenge recalls that of one of Brecht’s most memorable heroines: Jenny from “The Threepenny Opera” who brutal dream echoes through the film’s violent finale.
While some perceive the film as anti-American, its bleak vision could take place most anywhere in the last century. It could be France during the German occupation or Bosnia in the 1990’s. Setting it, though, in Depression-era America gives it the resonance of old Hollywood movies, which may be why Lauren Bacall is cast as a crotchety old lady and James Caan as an underworld kingpin out to find Kidman. This is a cultured, Euro vision of America, both a nod to the romantic ambience of its greatest cultural export, the movies, and a criticism of its “dog eat dog” social order.
At three hours, Van Trier was obviously in no hurry to tell his fable; yet, surprisingly, the length doesn’t seem to be an issue. Rather it’s the theatricality that is likely to leave audience members either hooting or napping (as they did at the critics’ screening I attended.) Those, though, who embrace its simple, fable-like structure, its use of theatrical devices, its leisurely story-telling techniques, and its bleak commentary, will find something extraordinarily potent. Like both “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark,” “Dogville” strikes a chord with responsive audiences unlike most films. Its richness lies with the unique way Von Trier tells an age-old story.
At the heart of the film is Kidman’s striking portrayal of a pampered woman stripped of her privilege. In some ways her character resembles that of the one she played in “Cold Mountain.” What’s thankfully missing here is the movie star veneer that so shaded her performance in that film. With that cosmetic exterior removed, she gives a performance of deep vulnerability. Her supporting cast is wonderfully adept at the Depression-era archetypes Von Trier’s creates for them, especially Bettany as the dreamy Thornton Wilder-type who apparently wandered out of “Our Town” and Patricia Clarkson as the battered wife of the equally impressive Stellan Skarsgaard. And it’s great to see Ben Gazzara and Bacall in the film, though it would be better to see them in larger roles. Still their presence only adds to the luster of this unusual, beautifully modulated tale of moral retribution. Like Brecht before him, Von Trier’s love/hate relationship with American culture results in a memorable work of art.