Philip Baker Hall
Lars von Trier
With the opening flowery narration by John Hurt and the Brechtian theatrical set of make-believe doors and walls, Dogville insists on – and gets – attention from the outset. And that’s even before Nicole Kidman smoulders onto the screen.
But this is a Lars von Trier film, so hardly anything is as it initially seems, and of course the camera absolutely can’t stay still. Seasickness pills at the ready, then, for the Danish director’s latest stab at the failure of outwardly decent human beings to be decently human.
The Depression-era backwater township of Dogville finds a stranger in its suspicious midst as beautiful fugitive Grace (Kidman) seeks shelter from a team of gangsters. The town’s self-appointed spokesman and philosopher Tom (Bettany) persuades the small-minded sceptical folk that they should hide her. They agree – but at a price. Grace is to sell her labour to the townsfolk by way of expressing her gratitude – and this she agrees to do.
Her labours become ever more intense when the townsfolk realise they have her over the proverbial barrel. Her money is cut, her hours are increased, and all the while a unpleasant sexual undercurrent depicting, essentially, all men as desperate rapists pervades, leaving an increasingly nasty taste. Grace learns the hard way that goodness and decency can be relative – and that the townsfolk have little of either, despite appearances and expressed sentiments.
Across a black-floored set that reads building names like a Monopoly board, Kidman, Bettany and the ensemble cast are followed around by von Trier and his camera as ever more dramatic – and stagey – events sweep the town and its inhabitants towards a fate they didn’t dare imagine. The unusual set and Hurt’s familiar storytelling tones manage to make the story instantly central.
The effect is, as ever with von Trier, intimate, gripping and thought provoking. The director’s moralising over human nature seems every bit as pious, arrogant and lecturing as Tom’s drab soliloquays throughout, but somehow we get through all three hours of it due to the intense pivotal scenes and the uniformly brilliant cast. Yet even though we know his technique already, the fresh story filmed using it is still profoundly shocking.
Kidman, an actress unquestionably at the height of her profession just now, is perfect as the “victim” of society’s crimes, subtle and captivating and completely able to rescue her character from caricature, while Bettany is eminently slappable in a role intended, surely, to be just that, and superb for it. Of the support staff, Patricia Clarkson is simply terrifying as the self-righteous matriarch figure, brooding over seven appalling brats and peering over her glasses like some overfed witch.
Everyone at my screening sat gazing at the screen even after the end credits had stopped rolling. I’ve not witnessed such an audience reaction since I saw Dancer In The Dark. Von Trier means us to think over the questions his story raises, and Hurt’s narration bothers to tell us that the film will not provide the answers – and there are any number of debates the story could begin, if not end. That the entire plot feels dramatically contrived to get us there is incidental, but it niggles all the same, and the film’s length makes it tough going. But Dogville is a work that’s challenging, complex, incisive and unusual – everything a film should be.