Cannes 2003 Diary Day 6: Lars von Trier Wows the Croisette with “Dogville”
by Stephen Garrett
Finally, Cannes has a blockbuster. Lars von Trier, a favorite son of the festival whose features (stretching back to his 1984 debut “The Element of Crime“) always premiere in competition here, has once again taken the Croisette by storm with “Dogville,” a brilliantly realized elaboration on past themes wrapped in Brechtian artifice, American sentiment, and rich moral conundrums.
Returning for the first time since his 2000 musical “Dancer in the Dark” won the Palme d’Or, von Trier shows no sign of the directorial indulgence or artistic relaxation that too often follows major accolades. Quite the opposite is true: his new film is a major work of cinematic ambition made triply admirable considering that it is the first in a projected trilogy about a woman named Grace (played with remarkable aplomb by Nicole Kidman) and her soul-searching as she experiences humanity at its best and worst.
On the surface, the three-hour “Dogville” seems a tired retread of von Trier’s Golden Heart trilogy, which began with 1996’s “Breaking the Waves,” continued with 1998’s “The Idiots” and concluded with “Dancer“: stories about self-sacrificing women who allow themselves to be completely humiliated and destroyed, all in the name of redemption and higher love. Indeed, in this new film, Kidman plays a mysterious woman on the run from gangsters who hides out in the mountain town of Dogville and relies on the kindness of strangers — simple folk who eventually realize and then happily abuse the power they have over their fugitive charge.
It’s only a matter of time before Kidman finds herself the victim of merciless cruelty. But just as “Dogville” playfully falls into familiar von Trier ground, the film just as effortlessly snaps out of it, climaxing in a dazzling display of philosophical debate and visceral catharsis.
One of the most arresting features of the film is its near-total lack of realistic set design: the entire production takes place on an enormous, virtually naked sound stage, with the houses of the village marked out on the floor and the townspeople (decked out in what looks to be Depression-era clothes) knocking on invisible doors. The effect insistently undermines film’s natural ability to capture realism and plays up the inherent theatricality at the story’s core. This is a parable more than a melodrama, and its characters are vibrantly mythic.
After the film’s first screening, a violent stampede of journalists led to the packed press conference, at which von Trier explained his latest work. “I’m not afraid of making films in strange ways,” said the director about his stripped-down design. “The idea came from how I remember the fun we have at a script reading, with no props.” Kidman agreed that the approach was initially off-putting. “I felt that it was either going to work or not going to work,” she said. “I saw the chalk dog on the floor and thought, ‘Okay!’ But once you make that leap, then you’re into it.”
At accusations that the film was a retread of his abused-woman narrative, and that he seemed to revel in torturing his female stars, Von Trier was dismissive. “I don’t think it’s that important whether you are male and female,” he said. “It’s a superficial reading. And, yeah, I’m telling the same story — but that’s what people do.”
In contrast to the reportedly contentious relationship von Trier had with his last star, Bjork (who won Cannes’ award for best actress), the director seemed playfully at ease and even affectionate with Kidman. “Nicole, don’t do that — you promised!” he scolded the Oscar-winning actor after she shared a cigarette with co-star Stellan Skarsgaard. And when von Trier explained that Kidman had committed to playing Grace for three films — the next being the upcoming “Mandelay” — the director faked a crisis of confidence. “Nicole said to me she wanted to do it,” he said as Kidman merely smiled and said nothing to support him. “Could you please tell it to these people, please?” he said in mock desperation. “Just say yes.”
Although von Trier has never stepped foot in the United States (his fear of flying rules out any country that can’t be reached by his RV), “Dogville” is set in the Rocky Mountains. And because the film revels in arrogant behavior and ends in violence, the film can be taken as an indictment of American culture — its end credits even roll over dour photos of 20th-century American life, all to the sound of David Bowie‘s “Young Americans.” But von Trier denies any overt political agenda. “I feel like an American, actually,” he said. “Ich bein ein American! But this story is not uniquely American. I just wanted to set it in a country I had not been — and because 80 percent of Danish television is American, it felt familiar, though I am coming at it secondhand. This film is not a comment on America — only the America in my head. And if there is a moral, it’s that good and evil are in everyone — and that only the right circumstances will bring it up.”