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Dogville

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Dogville

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Harriet Andersson
Director: Lars von Trier
Rated: R
RunTime: 177 Minutes
Release Date: March 2004
Genres: Drama, Foreign, Suspense


*Also starring: Lauren Bacall, Jean-Marc Barr, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Thom Hoffman



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Review by Harvey Karten
4 stars out of 4

People are just no damn good. This, from the great Danish writer-filmmaker Lars von Trier, whose "Breaking the Waves" not only introduced Emily Watson to the moviegoing public but succeeded wonderfully in projecting the story of a young, simple-minded Scottish woman who willingly takes lovers, believing that this would cure her husband who has been paralyzed by an accident. Von Trier proves that people are no damn good by paradoxically introducing us to a town made up of good people, the sorts who might be found in Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer-prize-winning American play, "Our Town," which is about folks in a New Hampshire village given graphic evidence that every day should be cherished. Wilder's temperament is an optimistic one, however, while Von Trier, takes most of the three-hour running time of his latest film "Dogville," to justify his cynicism.

The people in a small, poor, closed-off Rocky Mountain community during the Depression more or less get along with one another, perhaps because everyone is equally poor and without particular influence. They take a large risk at first, sheltering a woman who has escaped from a band of gangsters, in much the way the righteous people in the Nazi-occupied nations of Europe harbored Jews (like Anne Frank) who needed their protection. Von Trier insists that circumstances have a way of changing, the good turning to bad in much the way that a fine wedge of Camembert cheese becomes inedible from being exposed too long to warm air.

Just what is there about us and our fellows on the planet that corrodes our good will? Power. Every schoolchild used to know Lord Acton's classic insight, "Power corrupts: And absolute power corrupts absolutely." Just watch any 10-year- old, helpless and dependent and regularly punished by the wielders of authority, when face to face with a flock of pigeons in the park. He chases them, and god help any bird that might fall into his vengeful hands.

While thematically there's nothing new under the sun, and given the vast quantities of movies that embrace the concept of the evils of power, what makes "Dogville" stand apart, giving Von Trier's work a puissance virtually unique in the past decade or so? This is not difficult. Von Trier is willing to take risks, to experiment, even if his dabbling into the depth of originality could cost him the typical audience eager to repeat their theater experiences ad infinitum rather than see films afresh. To this end, he unfolds his drama from the very first moment on a stage bare of buildings, scenery, and all the appurtenances that give movies their cinematic life. In place of the shacks inhabited by these poor people, we see some boards, the boundaries marked off on the stage with chalk lines. Even Moses the dog is unseen until the very conclusion save for a printed word "dog" and a sketchy design of his lowly abode.

When people knock on doors, they appear to be hammering on air. When a woman hides herself from gangsters in the town, she is covered simply by a series of wooden poles. While the town meeting hall is obviously an enclosed space, we see the shabby auditorium in the open air. In other words, Von Trier is challenging the very notion that movies must be naturalistic (i.e. with scenery designed to look like real, physical structures) and that abstracted designs must be relegated strictly to the legitimate theater. If "Dogville" were presented according to conventions, its location would be perhaps a theater off- Broadway, such as the Minetta Lane in New York or the second- story platform at Dublin's Abbey Theatre.

What's remarkable is that this filmed play actually works: Does it ever. After a while, the audience forgets that it's missing concrete buildings, gooseberry trees, and closed-off houses and concentrates as Von Trier has hoped on the characters, on people whose temperaments change before our eyes, their metamorphoses coming across most credibly. The change has been earned.

The story opens on a village that could have been imagined by Thornton Wilder, a small town where everyone knows everyone else, where despite a few grievances of some against others, everyone gets along. These are honorable people, but honorable, ultimately, in the ironic sense conveyed by Marc Antony in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), the town spokesman, regularly delivers moralistic sermons on Sunday notwithstanding the irritation some in the congregation feel about his alleged condescension, and life goes on month after month with consistency. But now, a stranger, Grace (Nicole Kidman), turns up suddenly, on the run from gangsters. After a unanimous vote by the town, her new neighbors agree to hide her notwithstanding a reward for her return dangled by The Big Man (James Caan) from the back of his Cadillac. At first content to allow asylum without conditions, the Dogville residents gradually opt to exploit her labors, keeping her busy with hard physical work while they treat her with increasing contempt. Near the story's end, only Tom who has grown to love her and whose feelings are reciprocated by Grace stands by her as she becomes increasingly and literally enslaved (and worse) by the others. Tom holds out for a while. Later: Payback time.

Von Trier has assembled an all-star cast for his vigorous, alarming fable, whose Depression-era setting is but a thin disguise for the story's universality. Ms. Kidman and Mr. Bettany have terrific support from such stars as Ben Gazzara as a man who refuses to admit that he's physically blind; James Caan, as the boss with absolute power; Patricia Clarkson as the mother of four kids, one of which is a prototype for that kid whose neck you'd love to wring; Jeremy Davies as the slow- witted loser; Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny and Blair Brown as women who should, by nature, have stood by the outsider of their gender; Stellan Skarsgard as the town grouch; Philip Baker Hall as the retired doctor on a small pension; Zeljko Ivanek as Ben, whose agreement to lead the frightened woman to freedom is tenuous. John Hurt fills in the gaps with his eloquent narration, delivering words that soar like poetry with alliteration, metaphors, similes and best of all, a delicious irony.

While most moviegoers will compare the film to "Our Town," a better example my favorite drama of all-time is Friedrich Durrenmatt's "The Visit," or in the German Swiss of the author, "Der Besuch der alten dame." While the film version which starred Ingred Bergman trashes the very point of the play, Maurice Valency's adaptation projects a wealthy woman who returns to her debt-ridden home town to offer a sum greater than they have ever imagined to help her. She wants the life of a villager who years back had caused her to be expelled from town in disgrace. Ringing denial of this absurd demand is followed by the graduate corruption of everyone in town, the village schoolteacher the last to go under. Will the poor guy's neighbors, who have sworn never to turn their esteemed resident over to the evil woman, abide by their pledge when big bucks are offered? Like Von Trier in "Dogville," Durrenmatt shows us step by step, slow and easy, how people change when an offer of power (in Durrenmatt's case, money) is on the table.

"Dogville" earns its three-hours' running time. Anything shorter would fail to convince us that those we consider nice people are, at core, rotten. There is not a single saintly person in this story, and that's all to Von Trier's credit.

Two major points have led to a division among critics who have seen "Dogville," perhaps at the Cannes Film Festival. One is that the stripping down of the naturalism so basic to motion pictures is pretentious that "Dogville" is meant to be seen on the legitimate stage. That's their view. However, Von Trier indicates that perhaps the most abstract play can justifiably be filmed. (The converse is probably not true. The stage cannot simulate the conventions of the film industry, though Broadway has long tried hard to give a TV- and movie-addicted audience the most obvious kitchen-sink naturalism in scenic design and motion.)

The other point is that the United States is indirectly trashed, and not in the humorously mild way that we've seen in the animated "Triplet of Bellville," where the worst sin of America is its love for burgers and fries. Von Trier does not attempt to raise a defense to this charge. In the production notes, he states, "If you are strong, you also have to be just and good, and that's not something you see in America at all. I don't think that Americans are more evil than others but then again, I don't see them as less evil than the bandit states Mr Bush has been talking so much about. I think that people are more or less than same everywhere. What can I say about America? Power corrupts."

No other film in past few years can stand up Von Trier's success in putting across a vision in such a powerful, entertaining way. Not "The Lord of the Rings" (the highly over- praised victory of soulless technology over meaningful story- telling), not even my favorite from 2003, "American Splendor" (as creative as anything else turned out that year, but without the political, philosophical and moral strength of "Dogville"). To my mind, given the film's universal vision, solid performances, lyrical narration and appropriately baroque musical background, "Dogville" has earned the title of masterwork.

Copyright 2004 Harvey Karten

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