While the United States tries desperately to repair its international image, prominent Danish film-maker and provocateur Lars Von Trier gives no quarter with his scathing new work “Dogville.” Functioning more as a bucketful of medicine than entertainment, the film’s extreme attack on capitalism fits in with past Trier tirades like “Dancer in the Dark,” exposing the moral decay and cruelty of modernity over an endless running time. Thankfully, “Dogville” is far more watchable than Trier’s other work, which is quite a feat coming from a man who openly admits to directorial “masturbation.” He grants his audience a tad more respect here, going beyond convention to produce a real breakthrough in theatrical storytelling which lends the film the visceral excitement of watching a cutting-edge experiment: anything can and does happen.
Unfortunately the screenplay seems to be made up of all the wrong ingredients. Trier, ever the arrogant puppet master, doesn’t trust his audience to understand the radical message of the film, causing him to throw subtlety to the winds and rely on manipulation to shove his point across. Thus the lead characters are bluntly named after the great American businessman, Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) and the religious state, Grace (Nicole Kidman). Young Tom is idealistic, a discontented philosopher growing up in the rural American town of Dogville who is unhappy with the greed he sees in his fellow townspeople. When Grace wanders into town on the lam from gangsters he sees her arrival as the perfect opportunity to show each of the townspeople their selfish ways. Calling a town meeting, he dares them to risk their well-being on housing this fugitive. They agree to let her stay for two weeks while they feel out the situation. Grace is kind and sweet, volunteering to help each of the townspeople with chores while they in turn help set up her house and befriend her as an equal. But this pure, happy form of communism is quickly replaced by corrupt capitalism as the townspeople realize that they are in a superior position and begin to treat Grace as a commodity to use more and more for their own selfish needs.
Trier takes this story to its extreme, leaving nothing to the imagination and in the process making Michael Moore sound like Mr. Rogers. He is not trying to convince, he is only trying to provoke. Intent on making his point, Trier ignores many arguments that would easily refute his and fills his dialogue with one-sided, cheesy philosophical rants that might be intended as witty, but the tongue never reaches the cheek. Most of this would be entirely unbearable for all but the staunchest liberal if it weren’t for the interesting new ways in which “Dogville” is presented and acted. The genre-smashing begins with a set that can best be described as something similar to a gigantic Clue board floating in limbo. As there are no walls other than those drawn on the floor, the inside of each building and its occupants are exposed to the all-seeing eye of the camera. Devoid of all but the smallest set pieces, the filmgoer’s imagination is required to build the town. A few cinematic tricks are used such as subtle weather and light effects brought into play to dazzle with their simplicity. All of this functions as a delightful counterbalance to the heavy-handed plot and also proves that a creatively-handled small budget can yield the same results as a far larger one.
By setting the action on a stage Trier takes on the Achilles Heel of cinema and uses it to his advantage. He films the stage repeatedly from above, exploring an angle that would never be possible to see from a theater audience. This unique viewpoint casts the citizens of Dogville as playing pieces both universalizing them and turning them into trinkets, commodities. At one point, they are compared to porcelain figurines that can be bought at the local store. Yet it is the expert acting of these very pawns that brings Trier’s game off the tabletop.
In the grand tradition of “Being There” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” Trier populates his spare set with big-name actors to give it depth. Dogville has Lauren Bacall raking the gooseberry bushes, Philip Baker Hall rocking in his chair, Patricia Clarkson tending her many children and each one of them feels familiar in that sleazy small town sort of way. As Tom, Bettany is convincingly naive, gaining audience confidence with his wholesome, educated demeanor and later proving that intellectualism is no defense against stupidity or greed. It is Kidman, however, that truly shines. She is both vulnerable and mysterious, taking the familiar Trierian female Jesus figure in a new direction. Grace is understated, elegant and slightly confused, showing none of the hard icy edge characteristic of Kidman’s earlier work. She is helped by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle who exploits her strange beauty to full effect. Through his lens she towers, angular, in dark clothing, with a white face — a figure from a Munch painting. As she begins to wear out Grace becomes even less human and more luminescent.
While the film may be brilliant at times it is never convincing which is a major fault in such a political piece. Issue after issue is brought up only to be chased away by Trier’s barking. The enemy at times seems not be capitalism but the audience itself. Under this barrage the plot suffers, becoming slightly ridiculous as Grace continues to accept her suffering and then ultimately quite perplexing with a surprise final twist that is satisfying but empty. In the process of going for the American jugular, “Dogville” asks the right questions but in the end it is Trier’s force-fed propaganda that leaves him with his legs in the air.