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Posted on Thursday, May 13, 2004 - 06:00 am:   

First things first: is DOGVILLE anti-American?

There's little doubt that it was intended to be. Director Lars Van Triers
has come out and said that it was his view of the United States, a land
he has never visited, and it ends (in a most jarring shift of tone) with
closing credits that juxtapose photos of horrifying poverty with David Bowie's
song, "Young Americans."

In practice, any attempted metaphor of that type fails. Sure, the film is
set in a depression-era mountain town, but one could imagine much the same
story being told about an everytown in rural Europe or Tsarist Russia. Jettison
the specific pretensions and a have a more universal fable.

A very small and very poor town named Dogville, comprising one city street
and only 15 adults with a handful of accompanying children, finds itself
home to the refugee Grace (Nicole Kidman). Grace is running from gangsters
for reasons not specified until the resolution. She needs help. The town
strikes a deal with her: they will hide her if she spends an hour a day
helping out every household.

It's a fair arrangement. At first. Even a happy one. Grace falls in love
with the people, and more specifically with the soft-spoken young man who
persuades the others to give her a chance.

Then the town's glee at obtaining all this free labor from an outsider who
doesn't dare to leave, combines with their suspicions of her, and she becomes
a target. One by one they turn against her. Their warmth becomes cruelty.
Their generosity becomes exploitation. Her labor becames enslavement. Their
apparent decency becomes perverse cruelty. And Grace, who thought at first
that she'd found a home, soon desires nothing but escape.

The film's technique is fascinating. It was shot in a warehouse, with the
floor plan of the town painted on the floor; a few odd pieces of furniture,
a rock wall and some props provide the only sets. Actors close invisible
doors which nevertheless make the sound of being shut. Additional details
like lighting, blown leaves, and wardrobe changes indicate the changes of
seasons. (The town's sole dog, which figures in the plot, must be a lazy
thing; its habitual outdoor sleeping spot is indicated by the stencilled
lettering, "Dog.") The effect becomes that of a filmed stage play, and like
the best stage plays, it succeeds in conjuring the reality it alludes to.
The town feels like a real place, even if it's not genuinely there. And
Grace's arc from object of suspicion, to affectionately welcome newcomer,
to target of exploitation, to despised and abused slave, is given an immediacy
it might not have possessed on a more representational stage.

The tone shifts from rustic drama to horror film, with the final act (there
are nine, set off by title cards), devoted to Grace's payback.

She gets to speak a line...oh my God. I get chills thinking of it. You thought
Uma was a hardass in the KILL BILL movies? You haven't seen this one. Grace's
line is one of the most chilling I've heard in years, sufficient to put
the Bride, and her bloodsoaked rampage, in second place. (Bill Wilson: testify
to this. I'm not kidding.)

The film has an astounding cast. In addition to Kidman, there's also Lauren
Bacall, Ben Gazarra, Zjelko Ivanek, Jeremy Davies, Patricia Clarkson, Chloe
Sevigny, and James Caan, among others. The dialogue is poetic, with every
character having a chance to be heard.

Paced like a stage play, running for three hours, DOGVILLE is one of the best films of the year.

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