| Lars von Trier's DOGVILLE is reportedly the first in a trilogy planned by the Danish filmmaker,
although one might argue that it completes the set begun with BREAKING THE WAVES (1996) and
followed by DANCER IN THE DARK (2000). Each film has at its center a naive woman buffeted by
circumstances beyond her control. After suffering, these tragic heroines discovers peace of mind but often
Interestingly, the provocative von Trier has stated in interviews that he has more difficulty with his male
characters, but he is notoriously difficult on his leading ladies. Emily Watson made an astonishing debut in
BREAKING THE WAVES but was circumspect in discussing her collaboration with the director. Bjork,
who headlined DANCER IN THE DARK, was more vocal about her difficulties with von Trier. Although
diplomatic in her discussions, it was clear that the pair had clashed on the set. (The party line was that
Bjork was inexperienced; the upshot was that filming that movie made her decide never to act again,
despite her having delivered a strong, if unpolished performance.) Originally Nicole Kidman had
committed to star in the planned trilogy, but she has quietly distanced herself from the projects, saying
that she has too many other commitments to fulfill. Despite (or perhaps because of) the turmoil, von Trier
always manages to elicit terrific performances from his casts and DOGVILLE is no exception.
Having championed the DOGME '95 movement to return to basics in cinema, von Trier attempts
something even more audacious with DOGVILLE. Eschewing elaborate sets and relying on the barest
props, the movie was made on a soundstage in Denmark. There are establishing shots that show this
bare-bones approach, with streets and houses outlined in white paint and clearly marked on the floor of
the stage. The result is as if Brecht had written Our Town instead of Thornton Wilder.
Set in a small town in the Rocky Mountains during the Depression, DOGVILLE is the tale of Grace
(Kidman), a beautiful fugitive who seeks refuge in the small town. Initially wary, the townsfolk gradually
come to accept her as Grace takes on work duties until unforeseen events begin to turn the residents
against her. The film, an astonishing piece of cinema, is basically a tale of charity that fails and results in
vengeance. Divided into nine "chapters" (complete with interstitial title cards like a silent film) and a
prologue (that introduces the townsfolk) and utilizing John Hurt's sarcastic narration, DOGVILLE is
an engrossing character study cum indictment of small-town values. Perhaps von Trier did mean it as an
anti-American treatise, but this story could just as easily have been set in any country in the world. That
DOGVILLE finds the universality in the specific is part of its greatness.
The central male character, called Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), is a young man at loose ends. The
son of a doctor (Philip Baker Hall), the young Edison fancies himself something of an artist and he also
acts as the town's conscience. It is he who discovers Grace hiding in an abandoned mine, and it is he who
convinces the town to harbor her. In return, Grace agrees to handle menial work ranging from gardening for
the acerbic shopkeeper (Lauren Bacall) to babysitting for a farmer's wife (Patricia Clarkson) to assisting
the farmer (Stellan Skarsgaard) in his orchid. Because of a mutual affection, Tom does not "employ" Grace.
When the police arrive with a wanted poster with Grace's likeness on it, the town is plunged into chaos.
Gradually, those who accepted her begin to suspect her. She is forced to work harder and longer for less.
Eventually she is raped but then she is blamed for the attack and is chained up to a contraption created by
the town's wannabe inventor (Jeremy Davies in another of his seemingly patented eccentric performances).
Faced with the ultimate betrayal, Grace discovers untapped resources in herself that lead to a disturbing climax.
For a film that runs close to three hours, there is not one boring moment in DOGVILLE. It moves at
a brisk pace and the cast of veterans (Bacall, Harriet Andersson, Ben Gazzara, Blair Brown), relative
newcomers (Chloe Sevigny, Davies) and character players (Zeljko Ivanek, Siobhan Fallon Hogan) are all
terrific. Nicole Kidman anchors the film and she once again displays her astonishing range and versatility.
This was undoubtedly a risky venture for the Oscar-winner but she creates an indelible character and
manages to make her transition from victim to avenging angel completely believable. In her hands,
DOGVILLE becomes a place worth visiting.
Running time: 178 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for violence and sexual content.
Viewed at Magno Review One
© 2008 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.