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Dogville

  Dogville
Simon says, "Look right."

© 2003, Lions Gate
All Rights Reserved

The citizens of a Depression-era town called Dogville are simple folk. They like they way their lives work, and don't need outside help. When Grace (Nicole Kidman) stumbles into town one night after local boy Tom (Paul Bettany) hears gunshots in the distance, he offers her refuge from her unseen troubles. The townsfolk object mightily to Tom's offer, but he soon convinces them to a two-week trial run, in which Grace will complete chores to show her worth. Initially, Grace wins over the town with her diligent work ethic and charms, but the citizens soon turn against her, turning her refuge into slavery. However, Grace has a secret that she has kept inside from shame, and once it's unleashed, the town of Dogville will never be the same.

"Dogville" (IMDb listing) is presented as a throwback to the theatrical productions of early television. It features one location, the bare minimum of sets, and only chalk outlines to separate homes from streets, bushes from people. It requires great imagination from the cast to be able to play off such bare surroundings, and watching this is bizarre to say the least. Of course, one would not expect anything less from director Lars von Trier. The cinema's reigning provocateur, Von Trier has mastered the art of usurping audience expectations. Whether it's taking on the American death penalty with song and dance in his 2000 film, "Dancer In The Dark," or sending Emily Watson through hell and back in 1997's "Breaking The Waves," Von Trier has always managed to come up with something of substance every time he's stepped up to the plate. Even his failures find interesting spaces to explore ("The Idiots"). "Dogville" is no different.

This is an audacious film, though the exterior is very calm and serene. By taking away such cinematic devices as sets and props, he's brought the focus back onto acting and writing, serving up another hot plate of controversy with it. "Dogville" was much talked about in last year's Cannes Film Festival due to its alleged Anti-American slant. One could easily dream up current world situations that line up perfectly with the Dogville/Grace situation, but that's far too narrow thinking. The themes of the film could be placed anywhere around the world. How a nation mistreats its unfortunate souls is not exclusively an American problem. To be fair, Von Trier doesn't help matters by placing still photographs of homeless American citizens, along with David Bowie's "Young Americans" playing on the soundtrack during the end credits. But I've come to expect moves like that from the filmmaker. I bet if could get away with it, he would stand behind every moviegoer for "Dogville" with a stick and continue poking until tempers flared. That's just the way this director operates. Does Von Trier hate America? No. But he certainly likes to take on sacred cows, and we need more of that in cinemas today.

"Dogville" offers the perfect balance between stagecraft and film. Leaning on theatrical standards of acting, the cast assembled does a terrific job detailing a town turned into a monster. Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny, Jeremy Davies, Patricia Clarkson, Blair Brown, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall and Stellan Skarsgard play the townsfolk with great relish, twisting Von Trier's direction into a living hell for Grace. The film runs three hours, but it hardly feels like 90 minutes with this troupe of professionals. From Bacall's sinister indifference to Skarsgard's creepy "ick", this is a wonderful ensemble that knows exactly what Von Trier is up to, and performs accordingly.

One of the pivotal scenes in "Dogville" is between two characters discussing arrogance. Arrogance plays a big factor in both the film and Lars Von Trier. The climax to "Dogville" is shocking, but anticipated, and closes the film on an oddly satisfying note. "Dogville" is another feather in Von Trier's cap, even if it lacks a bit of his usual emotional gunpowder. It's an unforgettable picture, not because of violence, politics, nor performances. But because it's an original thought seen through to its inevitable conclusion. It's acceptable to disagree with Von Trier's worldview, but you cannot deny his audacity or vision.

Filmfodder Grade: A-








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