No, this theatrical setting is not going to go away with a fiendishly executed transition to real surroundings.


Some spoilers may lie ahead.
Better read it for yourselves

Director: Lars von Trier


Nicole Kidman
Harriet Andersson
Lauren Bacall
Jean-Marc Barr
Paul Bettany
Blair Brown
James Caan
Patricia Clarkson
Jeremy Davies
Ben Gazzara
Philip Baker Hall
Thom Hoffman
Siobhan Fallon
John Hurt

I found my lower lip trembling with incomprehension... or maybe it's because I studied film in college; but the setting in which the film takes place is none other than a stage where you'd, you know, watch a theatrical play play itself out. And here's the funny bit: all manner of eulogies I've received about it here and there (and believe me, everyone feels it's appropriate to have a fit when talking about it) have pretty much forgotten to mention this fundamental formal aspect of the movie.

This alone probably says a lot about how well Trier has pulled off what he has.

Basically put, the stage is missing the mezzanine's while you, the viewer, have the convenient Class A seat a la shaky handheld. All locations of import are clearly set and labelled with chalk on the town's one and only street, as if on a map. There's little in the way of partitions between the houses, and the opening and closing of doors is mimed by the characters themselves and appropriately accompanied by the sound of door knobs being turned. To boot, there are no backgrounds except for hints of rocks on the fringes. Day is white and night is black, although different colors of lighting are used as cuing devices at key points in the narrative. Fascinating stuff.

It might seem like Trier is following up on budget concerns, but it later becomes apparent that this is instrumental in conveying the horrors of the complacency of humanity that play out in the town of Dogville. That the transgressions against Grace are known and perpetuated by all is only exacerbated by our ability to see simple town folk getting on with daily chores while Grace is simultaneously violated in the background.

The Plot: The scene is set in the tiny town of Dogville, and there it stays. Tom, the idealist and budding writer, so John Hurt's overbearing voiceover has us believe, might as well be the village idiot for all the veneration the town folk has for him. His attempts to tickle the fancy of the town's residents by giving lectures at church are met with huffs and puffs as he tries to morally rearm them and "illustrate" the morality of "receiving". He's essentially an idiot to even the half-conscious viewer.

One night, as Dogville residents turn in, the stealthy footfall of a stranger alerts Moses, the town mutt, who, personified in his twilight bark, is actually nothing more intricate than a chalk drawing on the floor, to a beautiful stranger comprising one Nicole Kidman wearing an overcoat with furry lapels and cuffs that call to mind the fiendish Cruella Deville. But art thou beautiful once again? You betcha.

We learn that the young innocent, Grace, is on the run. Of course, Tom is keen to help her on account of there being only one skirt to chase in the whole of Dogville. A few minutes later a period Cadillac of a shady nature pulls up and asks about her whereabouts. Tom saves Grace's bacon by denying he knows anything and is given instructions to call if anything should turn up.

What ensues is only one of Tom's plans to inaugurate Grace into this community of simpletons. He calls a town meeting where he pleads with the inhabitants to help this poor girl out, to give her two weeks to prove she is trustworthy, despite the foggy circumstances that brought her there. Grace, scared to death of whatever she has left behind abides by Tom's advice to offer her help to anyone who may need it. Following some reluctance on the part of the town folk to offer her chores of significance, Grace offers to do for them things that may not be absolutely necessary, but which they may simply want. No, this isn't the bit where she becomes the town ho.

Grace's role is eventually transformed from the girl who does unnecessary but quaint things for the residents to an indispensable laborer that must be preserved at all costs. Even her free will. It certainly gets ugly.

Needless to say Kidman is once again outstanding in playing an almost messianic martyr. The innocence and purity before us is almost at odds with her persistent idea of herself as "stoic". Suffice it to say that a brilliant balance is achieved, and the finale is by no means a surprise insofar as the character's depth is concerned. All other performances, and in particular the two legends', Bacall and Caan's, are delicious asides, although they are somewhat short-lived.

Dogville had already received mixed reviews or rather, reactions, at Cannes, along with the Official Selection award. But what compelled me to watch it, and indeed expectantly await its showing, was the alleged anti-Americanism it was supposed to contain. I for one am not entirely sure whether its message, preaching on more than one level, is even about Americans. Sure enough it's set during the depression years in the quintessential American town, but it might as well be a village in Trier's own country of Denmark.

The movie bobs up and down, every once in a while being immersed in the depths of a masterpiece. But you know the bastard is just having fun with us. You might as well play Young Americans by Bowie at the end.

... which he does

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