The Danish filmmaker-provocateur Lars von Trier has never been to America, but he has an unshakable notion of what America is like, and his conviction is that it’s a village of the damned. In his controversial 2000 Cannes prizewinner, ”Dancer in the Dark,” set in Washington State in the 1960s, punishing capitalist economics and cowboy masculine monstrousness destroyed an immigrant factory worker played by Björk. Now Dogville, von Trier’s polarizing contribution to European-American tensions at Cannes last year, arrives Stateside to provoke. And on his newest map, the director has reduced the contours of his imaginary America into a fictional Depression-era town in the Rocky Mountains where poverty gnaws, the worst impulses in democracy prevail, and revenge is the best way of living well.
He has made, in other words, a work eager to shock, and often it does: ”Dogville” is severe in its outrage, and at times very foolish, and response is inevitably going to split between those who hate the film and the mischief ascribable to its creator, and those who love its stubborn, ornery vigor. But this galvanizing cinematic work is also gorgeous, experimental, alive with a Scandinavian strain of chutzpah, and artistically elegant. And so, try as I might to ally with those who despair of von Trier and his thing about women as humiliated martyrs (Nicole Kidman plays the tortured femme here), or who can’t stand von Trier’s view of America as a bully that breaks things, I cast my vote: Consider me firmly on the side of those willing to love the Danish brute and this stunning slap-in-the-face film.
For there is much to love in this nervy fable about Grace (Kidman), a beautiful fugitive in a fur-collared coat who hides out in Dogville on the run from gangsters — beginning with the star, who once again has followed her instincts to work with a director who will challenge her. However battering the collaboration may have been (at a collegial Cannes press conference, Kidman made no secret of a showdown during production), the resulting performance is exhilarating.
In a narrative laid out in a prologue and nine acts (with recitative links purred by John Hurt), it is Grace’s good luck, or bad, that the first Dogvillian she meets is Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), the town’s unofficial spokesman and uptight, self-deluded, self-appointed lecturer in ”moral rearmament.” Taken as much with his own goodness in helping her as he is with her plight, Tom persuades the others in his tiny community to hide Grace in exchange for her labor. And all goes well — Grace and Tom even fall in love — until a reward is posted for her capture and the townsfolk decide they deserve more return on their investment in Grace for the dangers they risk. (The townsfolk are played by Lauren Bacall, Blair Brown, Ben Gazzara, Patricia Clarkson, and Stellan Skarsgård, among others; von Trier now ranks with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen among those able to get anyone to do anything.)
Of course, because this is Lars von Trier we’re talking about, the new demands on Grace are painfully humiliating. As Emily Watson in ”Breaking the Waves” and Björk did before her, Kidman assumes the position of a beautiful submissive; for a time Grace drags a heavy chain and rusty flywheel locked by an iron collar around her neck, a sickening subjugation.
But there is a limit to Grace’s grace. This is not an innocent who goes meekly, and the conclusion is incendiary. Is this a breakthrough, perhaps, in the director’s ornate psychopathology? I take it as progress that von Trier cites the chilling Brecht-Weill revenge ballad ”Pirate Jenny” from ”The Threepenny Opera” as inspiration for ”Dogville.”
Indeed, the unprettily named village of citizen curs is so Brechtian-minimal that the entire movie is shot on a nearly bare soundstage, with white-striped outlines of place drawn and printed on the floor: Elm Street, gooseberry bush, etc. No natural light shines on this land. (It isn’t your land, it isn’t my land.) The production employs some props and sound effects, but when an actor opens a ”door,” his hand mimes action and grasps nothing. And though the citizens of Dogville do open and shut a lot of doors, enlightenment eludes them — just the way they like it.
Dogville, etched in brimstone, is a condemnation of what von Trier fancies is a particularly American strain of hypocritical moralizing; in a wildly mischosen coda, he sets inflammatory historical news photos to David Bowie’s ”Young Americans.” But we who know what the country really looks like can surely absorb such an inventive critique without raising a flag and crying ”Anti-American!”