Our Town Redux
I don’t have a terribly impressive personal track record with Lars von Trier’s films — I haven’t seen all of them, but those I have seen have, at best, left me less than satisfied. So it was with limited expectations that I went in to Dogville… and expectations, at that, that were mostly along the lines that I was in for something half intriguing and half annoyingly experimental.
And sure enough, starts the film, and here’s a narrator (John Hurt: Hellboy, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) telling us stuff, which anyone will tell you is a sure sign of a story that can’t be told visually and so what is it doing on film — if we can’t see it, it ain’t filmic. And there’s more we can’t see: the set. There isn’t one, except of the barest kind that the little community theater group I used to work with would have been shamed into fleshing out a little. Everyone’s just walking around on a black box of a stage that’s meant to represent a small-
So I hunker down with my arms crossed in that skeptical, I’m-
But damn if I didn’t completely forget to hate Dogville, and if I wasn’t, three hours later, completely blown out of my little mind and right into the screening room next door. All the Thornton Wilder stuff is there just so von Trier can dynamite it away, as if to say: You wanna see what our town is like? Here it is, in all its mean, petty, horrible smallness. It’s not particularly about American meanness or pettiness or smallness, though some have accused von Trier of being anti-
To say too much would be to spoil the whole mind-
But the film’s only half over at that point. It’s what happens next that’s so… amazing. There’s plenty before that point that, in retrospect, you realize is perfect. Like Tom, a searing portrait of feeble impotence, daringly executed by Bettany (I’ve gone from bored indifference to his work in his early films to being riveted by him). Like the whole rest of the cast, the women all stark, bitter coldness — particularly Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent, Far from Heaven), and Chloë Sevigny (American Psycho) — who just barely thaw toward Grace before the claws come out again, and the men all ineffectual weaklings — particularly Stellan Skarsgård (Passion of Mind, Ronin), Zeljko Ivanek (Unfaithful, Hannibal), and Jeremy Davies (Solaris, Secretary) — who find a motivation to act only when their own weakness is no longer an issue.
It’s during the second half of the film that Kidman is so revelatory, and von Trier’s plan becomes clear: they’re creating a parable of cruelty on the one hand and suffering on the other that’s something like the film that Mel Gibson, perhaps, thought he was making, and when it’s over, you feel the need to watch it again right away, because how it ends changes everything. And the very aspects of the film that at first seemed to me to be artificial and unnecessarily distracting and would render the film thoroughly uninvolving — letting a narrator relate much of the tale, keeping the bare stage nearly bereft of sets or props — actually serves to blast away all the artifice of film and compress the barbarous horror of it down to a searing, elemental kernel of truth. It’s hard to imagine another film this year outdoing Dogville‘s bracing acridness or audacity.