A town without pity

April 16, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Dogville is a viciously anti-American metaphorical drama by a director who's never set foot in the country. And that's the good news.

The bad news is that it's long-winded, pretentious, didactic, tortuous - and proud of it. It's a nightmarish perversion of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a morality play based on the absence of morality altogether.

All this by a man, Danish director and enfant terrible Lars von Trier, whose previous films (especially Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark) have been provocative in all the best ways, unsettling challenges to both conventional wisdom and conventional cinema. But this one's the equivalent of a taunting, know-it-all kid shaking his finger in your face, merely to show he can.

Nicole Kidman, the latest von Trier female lead forced to suffer degradation (Emily Watson and Bjork preceded her), is Grace - the name is so pointedly ironic! -who shows up one day in the tiny mountain village of Dogville. On the run from something or someone, she pleads with the townspeople to let her hide in their out-of-the-way burg.

This they agree to do, but only at the urging of town writer and moralist Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), who convinces them she is a child of God in need of help.

And so they slowly, haltingly adopt her as one of their own. Her trusting nature and willingness to do absolutely anything to earn their trust and favor wins them over. As long as she does what they ask, she's welcome - provided helping her does not put them in any danger, real or imagined.

But then the law comes to town, puts up a wanted poster with her picture on it, and the town's attitude starts to change (except for Tom, who's falling in love with her). To compensate for the perceived danger in sheltering her, the townsfolk demand she perform more and more outlandish tasks. Eventually, things turn nasty, and Grace ends up literally a prisoner of the townsfolk, who continue to take advantage of her presence and her predicament.

All this is acted out on a single, almost-bare stage, with a few props and chalk outlines of buildings, bushes and dogs suggesting the town. It's a daring piece of staging by von Trier, and it's the film's most intriguing conceit; after a while, one willingly accepts the unreal reality of the film to concentrate on what's being said and done.

And therein lies the problem. I appreciate symbolism and metaphor as much as the next person, but not when it's shoved in my face with a jackhammer. Making the movie three hours long certainly must constitute cruel and unusual punishment under any rational justice system. Kidman soldiers on heroically as Grace, and for her trouble gets raped three times. Hey, Lars, we got your drift the first time.

Not even Ben Gazzara, Lauren Bacall, Blair Brown, Patricia Clarkson and Seljko Ivanek as various townspeople, each a study in contemptibility, warrant this sort of length.

And von Trier's obvious contempt for American mores and values seems, at best, simplistic, at worst, maniacal. Good, thought-provoking films have been made about America's often myopic view of the world, and the idea that this country is an all-too-fallible world power is certainly fair game for cinematic treatment. But not for this kind of cinematic overkill.

Dogville

Starring Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany

Directed by Lars von Trier

Rated R (violence, sexual content)

Released by Lions Gate Films

Time 177 minutes

Sun Score * 1/2

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