American Audiences Bare Their Teeth at Von Trier's ‘Dogville'

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The first time I saw "Dogville," I was sitting in a theater on the Boulevard Montparnasse, stuffed full of Breton crepes and cider. I had been in France for three weeks, and nearly every billboard I had encountered bore an image of Nicole Kidman, crouched down on her knees wearing a polka-dotted headscarf, to advertise a movie I had never heard of, regardless of the sad truth that all American films come out in Europe after about a half year delay. But in fact, the film really hadn't yet been released in the States, ostensibly because it was too long. (I guess "The Return of the King" changed that.) Also, it turned out that it wasn't actually an American movie, despite its Hollywood-centric cast. Rather, it was Lars von Trier's newest film, "Dogville."

Von Trier made the film in response to a criticism delivered following "Dancer in the Dark," that he really oughtn't try to make a film about the United States without ever having visited the place. "Dogville," set in a Prohibition-era town in the Rockies, essentially thumbs its nose at that accusation.

The story (for it is a story, complete with narrator and brief descriptions of characters' personalities and lives) is divided into nine chapters and a prologue, telling a tale which progresses from charming and innocuous to disturbing to downright strange. In Europe, this combination was evidently admired, and the film stayed in theaters for well over a month, also garnering prizes at a generous handful of film festivals. In America, it prompted people (including my father) to walk out of the theater halfway through the three-hour stretch; and a friend who was working as an usher at the theater we went to told me that they'd been instructed to be generous with their refund policy, and that it was unlikely the film would see a run of more than a couple weeks.

The film's action is centered around the main street of the town in which it takes place, rather out of necessity, as it was shot as a play. The only set is a vast, black stage, onto which the pattern of the town has been chalked in stark white lines. Each building or item of interest (the dog, the gooseberry bushes, the streets) is labeled. There are some bits of furniture present, and not others; although the dog is merely an outline (despite his occasional barking), the bell-tower of the meeting house is actually extant. And the seasons pass, and the apple tree changes. And snow falls, and seeds fall and leaves shore up against the rectangles of the houses.

The action is therefore a strange amalgam of play and film, and it evokes images of such similar small-town plays as "Our Town" and, perhaps, "The Crucible." Von Trier was, it happens, given a copy of "Our Town" to read while filming, but he claims to have seen no similarities between the two stories. Similarities, perhaps not, but definitely a sense of recognition, and the fact that von Trier doesn't see it is telling. He can, it seems, make a film about America without having been there, but he has no idea as to how people will react.

Casting the film as a play has curious consequences for its basic feeling. People act differently on-stage and on-screen, as well, and here the two are fused in a strange fashion. Slumping down the street, Tom (Paul Bettany), the male lead, is entirely of the play-world, in his reaction to the townsfolk sitting in their invisible houses, and his reaction to the houses themselves, but such an image is easily broken when a car drives onto the stage. And the stage has no real borders, either, only the mountains on one end of the town and the apple tree on the other. The stage is defined by the limits of the town, not the other way around.

At the same time, the close-up, intimate shots are the most film-like, as this is what we are used to seeing on-screen and what the actors are more used to in the presence of cameras. Having not seen Lars von Trier's other films (I even missed "Dancer in the Dark"), I don't know how this film, in conception, action, script, or cinematography, compares with them. But the script is excellent (the narrator's voice is positively lyrical in places) and the action well-conceived.

Watching the film for the first time was an exercise in patience, waiting for the train of unhappy events unleashed in the small township to come to an end, hoping that there would be a reasonable conclusion to mitigate the psychological trauma that increasingly afflicts the audience and (some of) the characters.

This is not to say that the film is without any levity-James Caan plays a mob boss, for a start-and the stark beauty of occasional scenes goes a long way toward relieving discontent, but it would be unfair not to warn unsuspecting viewers that the film is, to say the least, disturbing. I have heard that this is an element shared with all of von Trier's work. But it also sets forth some concepts that are worth considering and worth watching played out on the screen, because here they all have at least a sense of internal closure.

The entrance to the mineshaft in the little town of Dogville reads dictum ac factum, Latin for "word and deed." And that is what lies at the heart of this film, a juxtaposition of word and deed, and an illumination of where the two overlap and what can happen then. Tom, who is the self-appointed town philosopher, says of his fellow townsfolk that he "just (tries) to refresh their memories by way of illustration." Up until the opening of the film, his illustrations were purely hypothetical, delivered in word alone. This film is the story of the one illustration that takes corporeal form and the series of illustrations, verbal and physical, that follows hot on its heels.


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