Friday, April 13, 2012
Overheated Melodrama: Dogville (2004)
Everything about Danish director Lars von Trier’s expressionistic film has some symbolic gesture that could be taken as a condemnation of American values, distorted morality, Christian charity, and omniscient power issues. Whatever the filmmaker’s personal politics or motivations, this highly unusual production is as audacious as it is austere. Unfolding much like the spare 1950s televised plays on Playhouse 90, the actors are costumed, but they are working in an empty warehouse with only the barest suggestion of sets and minimal props. Even the town’s lone dog, whose bark signals the arrival of every newcomer, is a chalk outline on the floor.
Rather than just a director’s gimmick, this conceptual aesthetic heightens the sense of moral outrage in the story. The lack of walls estranges the viewer from the brutality on display, encouraging a more critical reaction to the film’s caustic themes. When the initial rape of Grace by pessimist Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård) occurs, the camera pulls back through the non-existent walls to show the rest of the town blithely going about their business. This lack of physical distance suggests everyone’s complicity in Grace’s degradation. It is a much more powerful moment that if the actors had truly been oblivious of what was going on behind the closed door of a traditional set.
Nicole Kidman deserve a second Academy Award, forever obliterating any doubts that she is this generation’s Meryl Streep, the one film actress daring enough to challenge herself artistically in film after film. With a cast that includes Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara and Chloe Sevigny as various townspeople, Bettany, Clarkson, Skarsgård and John Hurt as narrator are the stand-outs. The three-hour running time, and uncomfortable story will sharply divide audiences, and Conservatives and Christian right-wingers will revile it as anti-American (although it is more accurately anti-cruelty). Only time will tell if this twisted variation on Our Town becomes a cult classic.
- by Jonathan Lewis