Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Stellan Skarsgaard, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Chlo‘ Sevigny, Stellan SkarsgŒrd, Harriet Andersson, Blair Brown, Siobhan Fallon, Zeljko Ivanek, Udo Kier, John Hurt (narrator)
Written by: Lars von Trier
Directed by: Lars von Trier
MPAA Rating: R for violence and sexual content
Running Time: 177
Date: 05/19/2003

Dogville (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

More Bite Than Bark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's true that Lars von Trier has never visited the United States (he's afraid to fly), but that's no reason he shouldn't set his movies here. After all, the United States makes a good springboard for all kinds of universal themes and parables.

Case in point, von Trier's new film Dogville does a beautiful job of using a small town setting to illustrate our vindictive, selfish natures and the irresistible, unstoppable formation of mob mentality. And von Trier sustains his film through nearly three hours with consummate artistry, before suddenly going one step too far with his controversial closing credits: a collage of photographs depicting a century's worth of Americans in the throes of hunger, misery and strife -- all to the tune of David Bowie's "Young Americans."

Such a ploy is clearly intended to raise our ire, but why so blatantly obvious? And why is it attached to an otherwise great film?

Still, we often overlook such fatal errors in Oliver Stone and Spielberg's films, and so we should do the same here.

The town of Dogville occupies a bluff on the side of a mountain. Its population is less than thirty and includes such international character actors as Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Chloe Sevigny and Stellan Skarsgard. John Hurt narrates. The action focuses mostly on the intellectual Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) who frequently holds town meetings to increase the population's moral fiber.

Everything changes when a beautiful fugitive, Grace (Nicole Kidman), descends upon their town. The townspeople vote to keep her around, giving her little tasks to do. As their fear mounts, they begin to increase her tasks while taking away her rewards. It's not long before she becomes a sexual slave and an overall scapegoat.

Unlike most towns, this one is located on a sound stage, with all the "buildings" drawn only in white chalk. Even the names of the homeowners are stenciled on the floor, as well as the unmoving outline of a dog that we can occasionally hear barking. Von Trier maneuvers his camera through the town as if it was real, and carefully controlled lighting coaxes subtle mood and time changes. The eeriest effect comes when we can see action going on within the town's "walls" but the other characters cannot.

Like Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves and Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, Grace goes through a hellish amount of misery for this director. Von Trier has virtually inherited the undistilled melodrama of D.W. Griffith, who routinely put Lillian Gish through the ringer. Thanks to an astonishing performance by Kidman, Grace's anguish becomes real and she breaks our hearts. Forget Cold Mountain -- this is the film Kidman should be honored for.

A master of great female performances, von Trier refreshingly gives Lauren Bacall something to do instead of casting her in an old-time movie star cameo. She acts with the best of them, assuming the role of town matriarch and often leading the emotional parade.

Bacall made her debut exactly 60 years ago at the age of 19 in Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not, and she has enjoyed a much longer, more fully sustained career than her contemporaries Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn. When those actresses reached a certain age, the quality of their roles dropped noticeably. Dogville proves that Ms. Bacall is just as good as she's ever been.

Because of its lack of sets and props, the actors in Dogville come through more clearly and forcefully than in a more standard film or play. It's as if real buildings, streets and mountains, would simply get in the way of their emotional pull. This is an unguarded experience, a truly shattering look at our darkest and most unpleasant moments.

Normally a film's closing credits provide a place for us to decompress, to slowly come back to life. And more so than with any other recent film, we needed that rest after three hours of Dogville. But, sadly, von Trier has stolen that experience and we leave agitated and angry.

DVD Details: The American, Region 1 DVD includes an audio commentary by director Lars Von Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. But for viewers with all-region DVD players, the disc to own is the superb Swedish two-disc set (Region 2, PAL), available from Xploited Cinema. Disc one is about the same as the American version, but disc two comes with hours of extras, notably an excellent hour-long making-of documentary that actually contains footage from the set as opposed to the usual talking heads and clips. It also contains a collection of confessionals, which the actors were required to make each week during filming. (Not everyone always has nice things to say about von Trier.) Other extras include full-length press conferences and interviews from Cannes and other events, and many other featurettes about the visuals, tests, etc.

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