Lars von Trier
This is the movie that convinced me that Lars von Trier is perhaps the most brilliant director alive (David Lynch being his chief competition). I was simply blown away. Not only is it one of the most unique film experiences you will ever have, but it also has one of the most emotionally satisfying finales in recent memory. When a movie causes you to question your own morality, you know you are dealing with a masterpiece.
First it’s only fair to warn that the entire film takes place on a stage, with the buildings and landmarks of the Rocky Mountain town Dogville only vaguely represented, usually in chalk outlines. There’s no other way to describe it than “weird,” but you’d also expect little less from the man who brought us “Breaking the Waves,” “The Idiots,” and “Dancer in the Dark.”
The effect is what looks like a minimalist stage production that was filmed. While I’m not sure what von Trier was trying to do with this directorial move, I can say that the most concrete effect I noticed on myself was a counterintuitive sense of claustrophobia. It is literally a small town with no walls or doors, and everyone can see what everyone else is doing all the time, even if they are pretending that they’re sweeping the floor of their living room. It’s an unsettling feeling that gets transmitted: If they want to they can see you at any moment. There is no privacy. There is no escape.
Into this town wanders the mysterious Grace (Nicole Kidman), on the run from murderous gangsters. (Un)Luckily for her, she has stumbled into town precisely when local philosopher Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) is trying to persuade them that they’d be better off with socialism, and that they really need to try and help all of their neighbors. He persuades them to help the vulnerable Grace, and she gradually wins over the townsfolk and earns a place as a resident in Dogville.
When the police begin to look for her, things head south fast for Grace. The townsfolk decide that they need higher compensation for the risk they run at hiding her. An absurd group blackmail/exploitation of Grace begins to spiral out of control. The abuse and degradation she suffers from about the midpoint until the end of the movie gets uncomfortable and quite nearly unbearable before the incredible climax. And throughout it all we hear the strangely detached and hilariously ironic voiceover of John Hurt, who tells us what’s going on from the town’s perspective.
This is one of the most amazing acting performances I’ve ever seen, and the fact that Kidman wasn’t even nominated for Best Actress is yet more ammo against the worthiness of the “Academy.” I can’t say she definitely should have beat Charlize Theron’s performance in “Monster,” but it should have at least been a competition. Watching how she transforms herself just in the last act of the film gives you goosebumps. “Dogville” itself was better than all of the Best Picture nominees that year. The fact that it wasn’t nominated is more fodder to be stored in the “Academy”‘s Box of Stupidity.
A lot of people had trouble with this because it is “anti-American,” and they think they make a really profound point when they mention that von Trier has never even been to the U.S. (due to a fear of flying). First of all, whether he’s been here or not has nothing to do with it, so those critics can grow up.
Second of all, it might be true that he made the film with anti-American sentiments, but the cynical points he makes about human nature transcend mere Americanism. They are much more universal than that, whether he meant it or not. In fact, I would be surprised to learn that Lars von Trier actually thought that only Americans behave in the way he depicts the Dogville residents. He’s smarter than that, even if he is a little wacked out. Instead, he crafts an almost biblical parable about the ease that supposedly good people have in slipping down the dangerous path to abuse and cruelty.
This isn’t an original concept. And it could be considered misanthropic I suppose, although I tend to agree with von Trier here. That discussion is really beside the point, because the most fascinating moral dilemma arises in just the last five minutes of the film, when James Caan appears with his gangster henchmen. It’s then that they decide what to do about this fallen town, whether or not they can be forgiven for their sins.
(Spoilers) It is not the idea of normal people becoming monsters that is the predominant point of the movie, it is this question of forgiveness that is the most compelling part. I predict that your reaction to the finale will surprise you, and that’s where von Trier’s genius lays. He manages to manipulate you into cheering for cold-blooded vengeance, even against your better moral concerns.
At 3 minutes shy of 3 hours, the movie feels long, I admit it. But the full development of Grace’s experience and the piling up of the injustices against her makes the ending that much more powerful. The amazing part is that for three hours I was never bored (unlike other critics that I’ve read). It was consistently engaging the entire time, so I can’t in good faith mark off for length, now can I?
In conclusion, if you don’t want to see it just for Kidman (and I wholeheartedly recommend that you do), you should see this movie as a challenge. It challenges your stereotypes about movies and about morality. It’s a special filmmaker that can do that and make it consistently engaging.
3 April 2010
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