R, 177 min.
Now showing at Green Hills
I understand why people hate Lars von Trier, so much so that sometimes I wonder why I don't. The reasons were clear a few weeks ago at the Nashville Film Festival, in a documentary called The Five Obstructions. Basically, the Danish director enlists one of his heroes, experimental filmmaker Jorgen Leth, to remake the same film five times. Then he tries his damnedest to screw the guy up...or so it seems. Imposing arbitrary restrictions on the kindly Leth, von Trier variously comes off as a mean joker, a megalomaniac and a sadist. As he hopefully scans Leth's face for signs of strain, he's just a white cat shy of being a Bond villain.
Zentropa to the digital video strictures of Dogme 95, the director has tested himself against self-imposed creative constraints every time out. Which leads to the other thing: the work. The delightful surprise of The Five Obstructions is that von Trier's rules don't cripple Leth. They liberate him, fire up his imagination. The closest von Trier comes to tripping him up is when he gives Leth no restrictions at all, just total, unnerving, incapacitating freedom.
Openness itself is the obstruction of von Trier's new film Dogville, a ferocious parable of human frailty, unworthy sacrifice and immigrant exploitation set in a Depression-era mining town. (At this point, it's best to stop reading before you see the movie.) The movie was shot on a largely bare soundstage, with rooms, houses, even streets suggested only by a few props and outlines on the floor. And in part, it's about the moral and spiritual implications of living in a place without boundaries, where people can push as much as they want without anything to push back. It's an unforgiving subversion of the Anytown Americana of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Von Trier's is the imaginary America envisioned by our sternest, most distant critics. His Dogville is Our Town with rabies.
Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a mysterious outsider who wanders into the run-down mining village seeking shelter. The good folk of Dogvillea group of stock Our Townies who include an upright physician (Philip Baker Hall), a widow (Lauren Bacall), a gruff miner (Stellan Skarsg&squo;rd) and his brooding wife (Patricia Clarkson)greet her at first with mild distrust. But they warm to her as she starts to perform the town's gruntwork. Later, though, her continued willingness to please rouses the townspeople's latent cruelty. Her only ally is the ineffectual town intellectual, one Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), and his hand-wringing leads to even worse betrayals.
As in von Trier's Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, the protagonist's purity brings only torment in a world no longer capable of recognizing selfless gestures, let alone sacrifice. At first Grace accepts the Dogvillians' meanness with quiet stoicism, and we resign ourselves to another of the director's elaborate torture machines, designed to grind up the innocent and pulverize the viewer. But in its startling resolution, Dogville breaks severely with von Trier's earlier workone might say with a vengeance. An emissary from Grace's pastplayed, in a surprise cameo too good to reveal, by a perfectly cast actor at the top of his gameasks whether she would dish out the same inhumane treatment she takes from the townspeople. At that point, the Dogvillians learn that the choice to reject and defile Grace comes with a cost.
However arbitrary it seems in the abstract, in practice von Trier's obsession with rules and restrictions is essential, not just to his method but his meaning. Without consequences, there is no moral order: A religion without divine retribution is just a social club, a country without enforced laws is just dirt. Endless forgiveness simply leaves mankind to its bad habits. The end result is unchecked corruptionwhether on a spiritual level, as the Dogvillians indulge their basest impulses, or a national level, as their brutal exploitation of the outsider mocks America's founding principles. Von Trier turns his vacant set into the ugliest parody imaginable of America's all-accepting borders: Come to this country, and you can suffer in plain sight yet be seen by no one.
As the control-freak divinity of this pitiless universe, von Trier lays out his tale with a mixture of brazen theatricality and storybook simplicity, an effect heightened by John Hurt's icily ironic narration. Even when his insuppressible prankishness clouds his intentas in an alternately moving and puzzling end-credits montage of America's impoverished, cut to David Bowie's "Young Americans"Dogville has the heft and mostly realized ambition of a major work, however despairing. We can only be grateful that Lars von Trier wants to be God, and not the other way around. n
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