Lars von Trier's peculiar compulsion to humiliate his heroines (and by extension the actresses who play them) has finally crescendoed to a deafening din of indiscriminate, exasperating martyrdom in "Dogville," a daring experiment in heightened performance and minimalist filmmaking that is fatally undermined by the Danish writer-director's conceit as a narrator.
His last four movies ("Breaking the Waves," "The Idiots," "Dancer in the Dark" and now "Dogville") have all dealt largely with the psychological (and sometimes physical) torture of vulnerable female protagonists. While his storytelling and cinematic style are almost always compelling, he's never seemed so arbitrary in his sadism than in this allegory of a beautiful, 1930s flapper fugitive hiding from the mob in a ragged, remote, austere Colorado mountain hamlet, where the tiny populace goes from distrustful to accepting to maliciously cruel on little more than von Trier's say-so.
Played with discernible dedication by Nicole Kidman, Grace is a porcelain enigma of self-flagellation so determined to escape some kind of shadowy past that, in exchange for the skeptical township's shelter, she agrees to indentured servitude -- doing handy work, favors and manual labor one hour a day in each of the seven households. She gradually comes earn the friendship of all -- even those most reluctant to accept her.
But when mobsters, and then the law, both come looking for Grace some months later, the entire town turns inexplicably callous, with no insight whatsoever from von Trier into what motivates their sudden malevolence. At first the townspeople just take greater advantage of her predicament and her kindness by demanding more and more hours of work, but eventually she is subjected to much worse, including daily rape by most of the men in town and accusations of sexual enticement by the indefensibly in-denial women. When she's caught trying to run away, they tie her up like a dog.
Even her most staunch advocate -- Tom the town intellectual (Paul Bettany), who is supposed to be in love with her and has frequently stood up to his neighbors on her behalf -- becomes ineffectual and, absurdly enough, jealous of the rapists. He could help her. He could leave town with her. But for all his passion, he somehow hasn't an ounce of moral courage.
Von Trier demands that this all be swallowed with no questions asked -- although he does attempt to explain some of it away with nonsensical narration that is at best emotional slight-of-hand (provided with quiet Dickensian finesse by the unseen John Hurt, who also introduces the characters and sets the stage). The writer-director surely had deeper themes in mind for all this, but I didn't sense what they were, or even care to, because his characters were so ridiculously fiendish on a Biblical scale.
It's a shame the story fails so fundamentally because artistically "Dogville" is a rare cinematic achievement. Crafted almost like a production of "Our Town," the hamlet of Dogville doesn't literally exist on screen, but von Trier does a brilliant job of making you feel it. The handful of houses, the tiny church, the mine shaft at the end of the tight dirt road, all of them are little more than chalk outlines on a large, empty soundstage platform surrounded by enveloping blackness at night and nebulous white light by day.
Despite this unconventional simplicity, a vivid and complete sense of the township quickly emerges -- not only its literal and metaphorical coldness and weariness, but also its actual physical dimensions. A few props (furniture, an organ that goes unplayed in the church) help define the townspeople's lives -- the minutiae of which, without literal walls, are played out in background of every shot. It's an effect that turns powerfully unsettling later in the film when we see everyone going about his or her daily business as Grace is first raped only yards away.
The film is also aided in no small measure by its spectacular cast -- including Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Harriet Andersson, Stellan Skarsgard, and Siobhan Fallon Hogan -- who at least help make their multifarious characters' incredulous behavior seem chillingly unaffected. (The lone exception is Chloe Sevigny, who is terribly out of sync with the period setting.)
As a runaway mob moll in a fur-lined jacket, Kidman truly shines in her subtle performance of complacent apprehension, evoking remarkable empathy as she suffers all von Trier's slings and arrows of deliberate misfortune. (The actress has rebuffed the director's brazen public appeals for her to appear in two thematic sequels meant to comment harshly on American life even though he's never been here.)
But even with its daring achievement and its potent acting, only in its last 10 minutes does "Dogville" latch onto a form of enmity that has any satisfactory credibility, leading to a stunning finale thick with terrible portent.
So momentous are these last few scenes that I almost forgave von Trier for frustrating me so these three hours -- even if they did pass inexplicably swiftly.
But then I realized he was, intentionally or not, just pandering to my own base desires for something more than his habitual needless debasement. I couldn't help but wonder as the credits rolled that if he was rewarding me at this point, was he still being true to whatever it was he thinks he was saying with "Dogville" in the first place?
Run time: 178 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 21st May 2003
Box Office USA: $1.5M
Distributed by: Lions Gate Films
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
Fresh: 114 Rotten: 49
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Nicole Kidman as Grace Margaret Mulligan, Harriet Andersson as Gloria, Lauren Bacall as Ma Ginger, Jean-Marc Barr as Man with the big Hat, Paul Bettany as Tom Edison, Blair Brown as Mrs. Henson, James Caan as The Big Man, Patricia Clarkson as Vera, Jeremy Davies as Bill Henson, Ben Gazzara as Jack McKay, Philip Baker Hall as Tom Edison Senior, Thom Hoffman as Gangster, Siobhan Fallon as Martha, Željko Ivanek as Ben, John Randolph Jones as Gangster, Udo Kier as Man in the Coat, Cleo King as Olivia, Miles Purinton as Jason, Bill Raymond as Mr. Henson, Chloë Sevigny as Liz Henson, Shauna Shim as June, Stellan Skarsgård as Chuck, Evelina Brinkemo as Athena, Anna Brobeck as Olympia, Tilde Lindgren as Pandora, Evelina Lundqvist as Diana, Helga Olofsson as Dahlia