BY NEIL FAUERSO
Dogville is a viewing experience akin to 2001, The Stunt Man, or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Quite simply, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Superficially, the style is that of a play. The entire film takes place on a soundstage; the set is extremely minimal—houses have no doors or walls, only chalk outlines. That means that the actors mime the opening and closing of doors to an overdubbed soundtrack. If that wasn’t stretch enough, the film is supposed to be set in Colorado in the 1930s. Sounds nuts, right? It is, but gloriously so; one of the miraculous things about the film is how its landscape is so fantastical and compelling. Dogville feels entirely alien, yet its emotional impact is undeniable.
The story is simple to the point of parable. On the run from mobsters, a young woman named Grace (a never better Nicole Kidman) seeks refuge in the tiny town of Dogville. Dogville’s citizens seem decent enough, but they’re wary of the danger that hiding Grace might bring. So the town’s moral center, Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), finds a compromise—Grace will work for the people of Dogville to gain their trust as well as pay them for harboring her.
Things go well enough at first; Grace makes friends, the townsfolk begin to like her, and a romance blossoms between her and Tom. But as the police begin popping in with wanted posters for Grace, the town begins upping the ante of payment, first with extra work, eventually with increasingly horrible and degrading demands.
Dogville was criticized at Cannes for being anti-American. I don’t think that’s true or fair. Certainly, the movie is critical of the capitalist system and the way it quantifies everything, but director Lars Von Trier’s critique of human nature is far more universal. More than any political statements, the film asks piercing questions about morality, power, responsibility, and ego. There’s an absolutely astonishing conversation between Grace and the gangster The Big Man (James Caan) about arrogance that’s as affecting as anything I’ve ever seen.
Von Trier’s script is beautiful: simple, but layered full of feeling and black humor throughout its bleakness. His direction is fluid and unobtrusive, occasionally swooping to breathtaking overhead shots. However, all of Von Trier’s efforts would be disastrously misguided if the cast wasn’t able to consummate his radical vision. Perhaps not since the heyday of Altman has an ensemble performed so seamlessly together. Kidman, after preening importantly in The Hours and Cold Mountain, is pitch-perfect here. Natural, alluring, sexy, and even menacing, Grace may be Von Trier’s greatest female character yet. Equally good is Paul Bettany who renders Tom Edison as the icky heart of American moral superiority. All the other players (Patricia Clarkson, Stellan Skaarsgard, Lauren Bacall) are excellent and give the film a supple, rich ambience.
I still haven’t untangled Dogville. It is a dense, difficult film and it provides no easy answers. The credits alone, in the context with the rest of the film, are extremely powerful. I don’t know how wide the distribution will be on this film, but even if you half to wait for the DVD, brace yourself—it’s coming.