Moreso than any woman making movies today, Lars von Trier is the consummate woman's director. But then, that's usually the case in cinema--especially GREAT cinema. Like George Cukor, Douglas Sirk, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder before him, the experimental, profound, bizarre, and sometimes genius-like Dane creates female characters of Joan of Arc proportions—Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark are the most prominent examples. His women, or martyrs, as many would contest, live in confused, harsh places peopled with individuals who harbor little concern for the goodness they supply. In turn, these heroines' responses, those of martyrs, are controversial to many viewers and critics. They are maddening and victimized and glorious and, in the end, good (or not?). And master von Trier adds to it all a sardonic touch, spicing up what's essentially experimental melodrama.
Which is what makes von Trier one of the most fascinating filmmakers in current (and, for that matter, past) cinema. Like the great painters proving their skill in finely worked still lifes or portraiture, von Trier knows how to film a movie (watch Zentropa for some truly gorgeous misc en scene); he knows how to properly tweak the medium. His Dogme 95 manifesto of hand-held digital video, no music, available light only, and raw emotional veracity proved that he's entered something like a blue or cubist period, a period he's sticking to (though he has only made one "official" Dogme picture, the brilliant The Idiots).
Others may think they can slop around on DV, but von Trier understands the canvas he's working with, creating gorgeous compositions in a supposed slap-dash style that is really one of deep substance. Still, it's enough to enrage viewers and, even, other filmmakers. But, as von Trier confesses, he only makes movies that he would want to watch. Audience be damned.
His newest film, Dogville, is most certainly a movie he would like to watch, representing yet another contribution to this director's eminent oeuvre. It's the kick-off for his third trilogy series: "USA—Land of Opportunities" (the first was the "Europa Trilogy": The Element of Crime, Epidemic, Europa [Zentropa] and the second his "Golden Heart Trilogy": Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark). And it reveals the director both questioning the outcome of his "Golden Heart" gals and satiating his (our) desires for a woman's revenge.
Dogville's dame isn't necessarily a victim. Additionally, she's one of the most compelling females captured on celluloid. And this film is, so far, the most interesting picture of the year. For not only does von Trier question the trials and tribulations of the "good" woman, but also the "good" community.
Nicole Kidman (in her greatest performance to date) plays Grace, a mysterious and beautiful woman on the lam from a group of gangsters. We're not sure what she's done or how she's associated with the mob, but clearly something negative is afoot. It's the Depression-era, and Grace stumbles into the small Rocky Mountain town of Dogville, which appears to be one of those nice, folksy enclaves that promises warmth, humility, and virtue. It's there that she meets scientist Tom (Paul Bettany) who, smitten by her beauty and beguiling ways, agrees to hide her in the sleepy little town. Taking up the matter with the residents of Dogville, it is agreed that Grace may be allowed to stay for two weeks and, if they trust her, she may be able to stay permanently.
To earn their trust, Grace goes to work aiding the townspeople in various duties, from babysitting to taking care of a blind man (Ben Gazzara) to working in the orchard with the gruff Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard). Grace proves a hard worker and prodigiously kind—what could this young woman possibly have done?
But that kindness becomes her undoing, most notably after Chuck rapes her. Grace tells no one, but when the womenfolk find out, they turn on her, and the dastardly deed is seen as her fault. She is then suspect, making her stay in Dogville so unpleasant that she attempts to escape, and nearly does, until her chance is detroyed by a brutal deception. Following that, she is chained up like a dog, and the town goes from Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" to the horrid little hamlet in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."
Grace is forced to submit to Dogville's evil (or human?) impulses, but she is a forgiving soul, making her even more detested. This is where von Trier takes the movie into another philosophical realm, one in which even the viewer questions just why Grace is so gracious. In a terrific exchange with a gangster (played by James Caan), Grace's forgiveness is discussed not as an act of morality but as an act of arrogance. The fact that the film allows us to ponder that question about a character we grow to love marks the experience as even more subversive—von Trier isn't offering any easy answers.
Inspired mostly by the Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Veil song "Pirate Jenny" and the Royal Shakespeare's production of Nicholas Nickleby von Trier made the inspired choice to craft a film entirely on a soundstage with exposed sets and door-less houses. When knocking on an abode, the characters knock the air. We can see inside each home, examining everything from the humdrum acts of cleaning to the savage acts that will befall Grace. The camerawork is fluid and the story so absorbing that you almost forget you're watching what is essentially a filmed play (though the obvious stagey quality makes the movie's points even more cogent). Narrated by John Hurt, the picture takes on a storybook quality that's at once comforting, creepy, and cynical. And the cast, many of whom are American, is made up of all-star talent (Lauren Bacall, Blair Brown, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Chloe Sevigny, and Philip Baker Hall among them). Though some have decried an anti-American stance by von Trier (and so what if he has one?), Dogville's themes and questions are universal. Such things could take place in any community. But it is rare that you will find them depicted in quite this manner. The film will stick to you, almost uncomfortably, and you will not get the thing out of your head. You'll yearn to see it again, wishing to cycle through it's themes both complicated and simplistic. Not that there is a single point to the film--truly, the only thing simple you can say about Dogville is: masterpiece.
Read More Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun