Idealism and Invention: Lars von Trier’s Trying Masterpiece “Dogville”
by Peter Brunette
Continuing his stubborn, aesthetically pathbreaking ways, Lars von Trier has produced, in “Dogville,” a masterpiece that is nearly unwatchable. The film, which showed in competition here in Cannes, lasts just under three hours, and, since it takes place entirely on a gigantic, virtually empty stage, perversely tries viewers’ patience from beginning to end. Another trying and even frightening thing about “Dogville” is that its politics, or better, its anti-politics, tend toward the fascist and are, at the very least, dangerously regressive. (The least of it is that it’s also militantly anti-American.) Luckily, it also stars a sublime Nicole Kidman, luminous here in her most challenging role to date, and is made by the man who is probably the most brilliant director working in cinema today.
A title at the beginning announces that what we’re about to see is a film in nine parts plus prologue. Our first view of the town of Dogville, located somewhere in the western United States in what seems to be the 1930s, comes in a high overhead shot. From this point of view the town resembles a Monopoly board or giant city plan come miraculously to life. Elm Street, for example — which has always lacked elms, as the novelistic narrator helpfully points out — is clearly labeled as such in the middle of the street, like on a map, and we see all of the town’s 15 or so inhabitants virtually all the time, among various pieces of furniture and parts of buildings that stand in for larger structures. We see no doors, though people open and close them like so many Marcel Marceaus, and we hear them click.
Into this quintessentially American town (as imagined and symbolically re-created by a director who has never set foot in the United States), one day steps the amazingly beautiful Grace (Kidman), apparently on the lam from some gun-toting gangsters. She is rescued and befriended by an idealistic young man who is, in von Trier’s malevolent cosmogony, significantly named Thomas Edison Junior. (He is played by British actor Paul Bettany, who more than holds his own in Kidman’s powerful presence.) Tom convinces the townspeople to shelter Grace, which they do at first out of the kindness of their hearts, though their demands for appropriate recompense for such “selflessness” continue to increase. It is not hard to see behind this development a sharp and not entirely unfair critique of America’s vaunted idealism that has often masked self-interest. The setting-up of this narrative and dramatic premise is a laborious, extremely (and purposefully) artificial process. Not many viewers, it is only fair to say, will want to commit the huge expenditure of psychic resources that is required.
Those that do, however, will experience a range of cinematic invention unparalleled in cinema history, and, beyond obvious theatrical parallels to a play such as Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” critics will strain mightily to identify “Dogville”‘s aesthetic precursors. As always in the best theatrical performances, the film’s lighting is imaginative and nuanced. Dialogue is slightly stiff, in keeping with the film’s insistent artificiality. Of the 30 or 40 fascinatingly novel formal techniques on display, my favorite is the hand-held camera (along with accompanying quick zooms, disjunctive editing, and so on), normally the supreme marker of “realism,” but employed here in the context of total stylization. The juxtaposition is at times downright thrilling.
The cast is strong and highly professional, which is an obviously crucial requirement for making something like this work. Besides Kidman and Bettany, we are treated to the fine work of veterans like Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Harriet Andersson, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Chloe Sevigny, James Caan, Stellen Skarsgaard, and Blair Brown. But it’s Kidman’s picture, and without her beauty, acting talent, and pure star presence, it’s hard to imagine von Trier successfully pulling it all off.
The townspeople’s treatment of Grace continues to worsen, until she has become little more than an indentured servant and sexual slave in their eyes. By the end of this long, long film, von Trier wants us to believe that the human species is just naturally inclined toward evil and, that like a dog who cannot help but behave in a dog-like fashion, humans simply can’t be expected to live up to their own high ideals. Even worse, he seems to be saying, any attempt to make the world a better place to live in is merely one more form of aggression that can only succeed in making things even worse.
Critics will debate to what extent von Trier’s critique is specifically directed at the United States (evidence for this position comes at the very end of the film in the documentary still photographs of 1930s America, which clash with and yet give flesh to the immense theatricality that has preceded them, accompanied by David Bowie’s “Young Americans”) or whether he means to indict the whole human race. Whichever, the likes of “Dogville” have never been seen before and are not likely to be seen again any time soon.