Lars von Trier (2003)
Dogville is a film to be seen. It’s not pleasant, it’s not entertaining in the usual sense of the word, and it’s certainly not the feel good movie of the year. But it is compelling, intense, fascinating, clever, unusual, difficult, thought-provoking, and amazing. It’s also emotionally draining. I came out of the theatre and sat in the lobby of the Siskel Film Center for a bit, just to catch my breath and let the experience really sink in before heading back into the world and the bustle of the el ride home.
I’m a bit leery about writing a review for Dogville since I don’t want to raise expectations too high and I think the less you know about it the better. I went in knowing just the basic premise, the director’s reputation (The Kingdom and Dancer In the Dark, two favorites of mine,) and that the film was getting quite a bit of press for its unusual presentation, none of which I read.
Without giving too much away, the story is set during the Depression in the small Rocky Mountain town of Dogville, a community that doesn’t receive many visitors and keeps pretty much to itself. One day, a woman (Nicole Kidman) on the run from gangsters takes refuge in the town and the good folks of Dogville agree to harbor her there for a trial period. After two weeks, a unanimous vote will grant Grace a permanent stay. Otherwise, she’ll be sent on her way. This is just the beginning of a film that takes many gripping turns.
As time passes, the town’s good deed, namely Grace herself, at first transforms the town, rejuvenating the lives of the people. Outside developments, in the form of wanted posters, increase the stakes and start the town down an ugly path where human nature asserts its less charitable self.
An amazing cast has been assembled for this film: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall and James Caan all give terrific performances. Only Chloe Sevigny seems forced and uncomfortable with the stylized dialogue. Even more stylized is the set, which is minimalist to say the least. The entire film was shot on a soundstage, with just white lines drawn on the black floor to outline the walls of buildings. Significant set pieces (the bare bones of a mine entrance, the cupola of a bell tower) and subtle lighting device a third dimension and the creative use of sound effects in combination with the actors pantomiming works to build the illusion that these people exist in a real place.
The story and the performances are riveting from beginning to end. The expectations for the film that I created as it went along were constantly shifting and changing as this unusual, and at times horrific, tale unfolded. At a running time one minute short of three hours I was never bored. When it was done, it left me with a lot to think about.
Here’s the Gist: Like a great evening out at the theatre, see it with friends you like to discuss movies with—this is definitely one that you’ll be talking about long after you’ve seen it. [****]