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Ruff treatment
Von Trierís Dogville has its day
BY PETER KEOUGH
Dogville
Directed and written by Lars von Trier. With Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Chloë Sevigny, Ben Gazzara, Stellan Skarsgård, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Harriet Andersson, James Caan, and John Hurt. A Lions Gate Films release. 178 minutes.


Easter is upon us, and, coincidentally, the theaters fill with movies about persecution, suffering, redemption, and revenge. No stranger to operatic sadism and masochism (and unlike some directors, not sanctimonious about it), Lars von Trier out-Dreyerís Dreyer in his bleakest vision of human nature yet: Dogville.

Bleakest if only in set design. The town of the title, a Rocky Mountain backwater rendered by stenciled, labeled outlines ("Silver Mine" "Elm Street") and a few props on a soundstage floor, is a Beckett-like distillation of human meanness and misery. The characters, too, are outlines, less fleshed out and not as funny as those in Liíl Abnerís Dogpatch, but with more pretensions. They are the usual crew of the deluded, the blind (one literally so), the envious, the petty, the vain, the hypocritical, the bitter, the simple, and the brain-damaged. All with one fundamental characteristic in common: cruelty cowed only by cowardice. Call it "Sour Town."

Presiding over all is the disembodied, self-satisfied narrator (John Hurt), who relates with oozy irony and smug disingenuousness the nine chapters, not including introduction and epilogue, of the story. It is Breaking the Waves without the waves, Dancer in the Dark with only the darkness, and it requires, of course, a pure-hearted woman to sacrifice herself, without hesitation or apparent point, to the basest instincts of the mob. Call her Grace, and cast in the part the much-abused Nicole Kidman (actually, her best performance in ages).

Grace arrives in a hail of off-screen gunshots late at night, on the run from unknown assailants in her battered finery, so hungry she steals the (real) bone from the townís (outlined) dog, Moses; and you know for sure at that point that Moses is going to figure in the filmís denouement. (You neednít worry so much about Veraís ó played by Patricia Clarkson in her meanest and most miserable role to date ó pompously labeled children Achilles and Jason, though their fate is positively Aeschylean.)

Meditating on "Grandmotherís Bench" (a real bench, though labeled) about his yet-unwritten masterpieces, not-so-young-anymore Tom Edison Jr. (who says von Trier knows nothing about America!), played by Paul Bettany in a role with somewhat less substance than the figment of Russell Croweís imagination he portrayed in A Beautiful Mind, finds Grace. He offers to protect her. He also wants to use her.

Heís long had a notion that his neighbors have closed themselves off from the world (he himself snaps off the radio just as President Roosevelt announces the attack on Pearl Harbor). They need to learn to accept new things, gifts, again. Gifts like Grace. Maybe it will open the town up a bit, revitalize it. At the least it might give him some ideas for that magnum opus he has to start writing someday (perhaps Tom is a stand-in for von Trier, but I doubt it).

They donít warm to her at first, so Tom has another brainstorm: have Grace do chores for each of the townspeople. That way theyíll get to know her better and appreciate her more. It works at first, but familiarity breeds contempt, and as Graceís state grows more precarious, the price for her to stay grows higher and more degrading.

So this goes on for two and half hours or so, and the experience isnít much more pleasant than watching Christ get flayed alive in The Passion. So why watch at all?

For one thing, von Trier makes it visually engaging, even witty, despite the limited materials, through a repertoire of camera angles and movements, from a direct, overhead shot that makes the town look like a black-and-white version of the game Candyland to wobbly, handheld close-ups reminiscent of Dogme 95.

But more to the point, the film possesses a sinister, relentless power, the lure of inevitability without enlightenment, the awful recognition of truths and passions that are ugly and terrible but also strangely revitalizing. Maybe itís just that when James Caan, the Big Man in the Cadillac Limousine, finally returns, heís the first real human being, however pitiless, to be seen in the whole film. Or maybe itís the realization that the long, punishing ritual has come to an end, and poor old Moses can be thrown a bone at last.


Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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