Nicole Kidman stars in Dogville, a film that takes place in the 1930s in the Rocky Mountains.
Lars von Trier is a major filmmaker out of the innovative filmmaking group Dogme 95 (Dogma 95) best known for drafting the groups ascetic vow of charity manifesto that writes off sets, artificial lighting, and soundtrack music as decadent crutches.
Von Triers Dogville opens this week in New York, but his most recent film, a documentary, The Five Obstructions, which opens at the Film Forum in May, offers a telling look at the director. In it, he comes across as a petty tyrant, ordering co-director and mentor Jørgen Leth around the world in what amount to five remakes of the older mans 1967 short, The Perfect Human. Von Trier ultimately tries to take over the film by speaking in Leths name to criticize himself, an act that suggests volumes about his attitude toward his characters. Hes also cynical enough to have revealed to a French magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, that he dedicated an early student film to a fictitious cancer victim.
None of this is to say that Dogme has not influenced low-budget filmmakers all over the world. Von Triers talent was well established by 1996s Breaking the Waves, which brilliantly combined religious allegory with a pseudo-documentary style.
There are two kinds of von Trier films. The first includes Breaking The Waves, Zentropa, Dancer in the Dark, and now Dogville. These large-scale productions, scripted in English, flaunt their ambitious treatment of history, religion, and politics.
The second group includes Medea, the two-season mini-series The Kingdom, The Idiots, and The Five Obstructions. These are modest films, spoken in Danish and, in the case of The Kingdom and The Five Obstructions, made in collaboration with other directors and philosophically and stylistically experimental.
Having seen both Dogville and The Five Obstructions over the course of two days, Im starting to think that von Trier is at his best when he shackles his desire to make grand statements.
Dogville takes place during the 1930s in the Rocky Mountain village of the same name. The town intellectual, Tom (Paul Bettany), lectures about morality and has pretensions of being a writer. One night, Tom hears gunshots in the valley below. Soon afterwards, he meets Grace (Nicole Kidman), a fugitive on the run from gangsters. The townspeople provide her sanctuary. In exchange, Grace spends an hour a day working for the residents. However, when the townspeople discover that theres a price on her head, they demand more from Grace, until she eventually must flee from Dogville.
His trademark Dogme style aggressive handheld camera movement, jerky edits, washed-out colorhas been copied so often that von Trier had no choice but to move on. Theres plenty of choppy camerawork in Dogville, but nothing that will leave the audience feeling seasick.
Von Trier experiments in other ways. The film is bluntly theatrical, shot on a nearly bare soundstage. Characters housesand even a dog and two gooseberry treesare mere markings on the ground. A few pieces of furniture are visible, but von Trier eschews obvious artifice. He also uses chapter headingsthe film has nine, preceded by a prologueand an omniscient narrator.
John Hurts voice-over initially seems gently ironic. In time, its snide contempthe remarks that [Toms house] in good times might almost have passed for presentablesinks in.
Without being very funny, Dogville feels like a black comedy. In Toms failure to live up to his ideals and ultimate ambivalence toward Grace, one can see von Triers attitudes towards his heroines. Accused of misogyny for his depiction of female martyrs in Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark, von Trier merely fans the fire in Dogville. Yet, though a victim, Grace eventually fights back against her degradation. I couldnt quite escape the impression that von Triers treatment of Grace may have been a conscious self-parody.
As the actors and technicians names roll over Dogvilles closing credits, von Trier shows a procession of still photos of disenfranchised Americans. In case one doesnt get the point, hes set this sequence to David Bowies Young Americans. The films flaws are encapsulated here. By the end, hasnt even the dimmest spectator figured out the politics of Dogville? The use of the music is ludicrously heavy-handed.
If Dogville is meant to be an allegory about Americas mistreatment of immigrants, von Trier erred in casting Kidman, an idealized fantasy figure if there ever were one. Even though she is not American, unlike the real-life photo subjects that bring down the curtain, she is young, white, and beautiful.
Von Triers fear of flying has kept him from ever visiting the U.S. and perhaps in his use of celebrities he is overcompensating in his effort to connect with American audiences. Like Dogville, Dancer in the Dark is also an intervention into American culture and politics. In that case, von Trier fronted an anti-death penalty film with the pop singer Bjork as a murder suspect.
Von Trier began working in English with his very first feature, The Element of Crime. But theres something passé about his critique of American culture in Dogville. The dark underbelly girding the myth of rural benevolence and town meeting democracy and the challenges and hostility facing minorities and outsiders in that milieu have all been done to death. Attacking the American dream is facile. Imagining a decent alternative to it, rather than crafting a cynical revenge fantasy, takes more work than von Trier appears willing to do.