Film

There is no joy

Mighty Lars von Trier has struck out with pretentious avant-garde epic

Lars von Trier’s Dogville is certainly the Danish provocateur’s
most ambitious film to date: a three-hour, fable-like descent into hell with
a dazzlingly talented cast of international stars playing roles straight out
of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It’s set in Colorado during the
Depression and shot inside a bare studio where the sets are represented by
little more than chalk outlines. It’s also the most frustrating wreck
of a movie von Trier has ever unleashed, a facile, excruciatingly
self-indulgent exercise in misanthropic moralizing that would have been far
better served at half its absurd length. (If it weren’t for the array
of talent on display, the film’s many misguided, if novel, design
concepts and one or two inspired heights of typical von Trier sadism,
Dogville could be more easily dismissed as simply a piece of shit.) That
opening paragraph would, I’m sure, suit von Trier just fine, since he
hungers for nothing more than a strong reaction. But is Dogville’s
combination of shallowness and blowhard pretentiousness really something to
get excited over? Because these characteristics—oh! I forgot to mention
boringness!—are precisely what lie at the heart of Dogville’s
disappointments. (Disappointing for me, at least, because I’ve usually
been a von Trier defender and Dogville seemed set to be his best work.)
Metaphors clamour with the subtlety of wrecking balls: a woman named Grace
(Nicole Kidman, in a performance much better than her material), on the run
from a mob for reasons unknown, takes shelter in the quaint and remote town
of Dogville, where she befriends and eventually develops romantic feelings
for a guy named Thomas Edison (Paul Bettany). No, really: Thomas Edison. The
film’s design and camerawork, though boldly theatrical in a 1930s
avant-garde sort of way (the mime work’s a little hard to take), is
either painfully obvious (the lack of walls symbolizing the inability to keep
things private in small towns) or simply nonsensical. Von Trier’s usual
jittery handheld camerawork abounds, yet it feels like a pose left over from
his Dogme experiments—with everything in Dogville so thoroughly
premeditated and contained, are we really meant to buy into this
documentary-style photography? Is this actually supposed to feel on the fly
or improvised, as though the camera could barely keep up with the actors? (A
shot of Kidman glimpsed through a sort of shroud, is both the best image in
the film, and the rare one where the camera holds still.) Actors don’t
even get to do that much in Dogville because von Trier has an unseen John
Hurt read endless, Our Town-style voiceover narration that tells us what the
characters are feeling and doing instead of letting them show us. Dogville
aspires to lay bare the evil of Wilder’s simple, small-town America,
but von Trier invests his story with so little humanity to begin with, and is
so resigned to keeping his characters one-dimensional, that the ostensibly
hidden darkness comes as no surprise at all—especially if you’ve
seen a von Trier film before. For every scene of Dogville save the last, von
Trier takes Kidman’s trusting, pure-hearted maiden and slowly tortures
her for her goodness (or, in von Trier’s spin on things, stupidity) the
same way he tortured Björk in Dancer in the Dark and Emily Watson in
Breaking the Waves—in fact, like Watson, Kidman is repeatedly sexually
manipulated and humiliated and finally becomes the town whore. (If anything
is more guaranteed in von Trier’s films than the defilement of feminine
purity, it’s the base instincts of every male in sight to rape what
they cannot seduce.) Grace, at first a figure of suspicion in this
puritanical town, becomes utterly consumed by it. The difference here is that
von Trier lets her exact her revenge in the end—though he manages even
to bungle this by filling the film’s final chapter with protracted,
nearly incoherent monologues about ethics and arrogance which, like so much
of the film, practically dare you to take a nap. But the final chapter
doesn’t provide us with the last of von Trier’s misfires: just as
his narrative was lifted from superior tales of misanthropy such as Paul
Bowles’s “A Distant Episode,” Shirley Potter’s
“The Lottery” or Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The
Visit, von Trier also appropriates dozens of great works of photography from
the likes of Dorothea Lange and Jacob Holdt during the closing credits. While
David Bowie’s “Young Americans” plays, these images of
homelessness, poverty, death and despair flow past in a slideshow that von
Trier knows is bound to affect anyone in the audience with an ounce of
humanity. But it’s a desperate, last-minute ploy to win our sympathies
and reward our sticking with Dogville by giving us the emotional wallop that
von Trier can’t quite manage to get across on his own. V Dogville
Written and directed by Lars von Trier • Starring Nicole Kidman, Paul
Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, Philip Baker Hall, Lauren Bacall and John Hurt
• Opens Fri, Apr 23

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