Artifice without true artistry–a strange formulation for a fellow who once espoused the anti-artificiality “Dogma” credo–just about sums up Lars von Trier’s awful new film, a three-hour reversal of “Our Town” which takes a stagy, minimalist approach to a pretentious metaphorical assault on what the writer-director deems American hypocrisy, misogyny and economic brutality. In theory, of course, there’s nothing wrong with a filmmaker of any nationality criticizing what he perceives to be flaws in U.S. culture; but his work still needs to be informed by some real perception and executed in a dramatically effective fashion. “Dogville” fails both tests. It’s clumsily schematic and obtuse, rather like a blueprint for a narrative, similar to the one it draws on a near-empty soundstage to represent the Colorado village where it’s supposedly set, rather than a flesh-and-blood story evincing any real comprehension of what America is actually like. And despite the presence of a stellar cast, it’s all played so preciously, with fumbling dialogue, halting intonation and clumsy staging, that its extravagantly extended running-time becomes nothing less than a form of cinematic torture. Just call it von Trier’s revenge for what he sees as U.S. injustice to its own citizens and the rest of the world.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that he’s raised his fist of pompous protest against the enormous ills on this side of the Atlantic. In “Dancer in the Dark” he raged against capitalism, abuse of women, the American judicial system and capital punishment; and though all those are certainly viable targets, he did so in the form of a loony musical drama that offered no insight into–and remarkably little understanding–of them. It was simplistic and impossibly heavy-handed. So too is “Dogville.” It’s set in a Rocky Mountain hamlet during the depression. The town houses a spectrum of residents: an elderly doctor (Philip Baker Hall) named Tom Edison and his son, a cautious, ethics-minded would-be writer, Tom Jr. (Paul Bettany); store proprietor Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), who obsesses over her carefully-tended shrubs; a vain blind man (Ben Gazzara); a dour apple grower (Stellan Skarsgard), his prim wife (Patricia Clarkson) and their children, including a pudgy, duplicitous boy; a couple (Bill Raymond and Blair Brown) that try to make ends meet by refinishing old glasses, along with their inept “engineer” son (Jeremy Davies) and their standoffish daughter (Chloe Sevigny), who actually has eyes for Tom Jr.; and a woebegone trucker (Zeljko Ivanek). (There are also a few other women wandering about who don’t seem to have any particular occupation. They’re played by Harriet Anderson, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Cleo King and Shauna Shim.) The community spirit is shaken when a bedraggled young woman–portentously named Grace (Nicole Kidman)–stumbles into town, pursued, it appears, by Capone-like gangsters. Tom Jr. persuades the rest of the people to take her in provisionally, despite the danger they might bring upon themselves by doing so. He further encourages her to make herself useful to the residents, so that they’ll accept her and vote to keep protecting her after her “probation.” What happens is that they take greater and greater advantage of her, turning poor Grace–a gift, you see–into a virtual slave. Though it would be unfair to reveal how far von Trier takes this parable, suffice it to say the narrative eventually involves ever greater exploitation (sexual as well as economic), extreme cruelty (both physical and mental), betrayal and revenge.
“Dogville” takes aim at the apparent kindness but underlying viciousness of the American psyche, saving its heaviest blows for the ineffectual Stevensonian liberalism represented by the smooth-talking but weak-kneed, ultimately unreliable Tom Jr. Though one might be inclined to read the picture as a universal fable rather than an anti-American diatribe at first, von Trier disposes of such a possibility by showing us photos of American criminality and injustice over the final credits while David Bowie sings “Young Americans.” Very subtle.
Von Trier has assembled a starry cast for the picture, but though Kidman projects a nice vulnerability, she, along with the rest of the performers, are doomed to affectation by the director’s perpetually unconvincing dialogue–its artificiality is an obvious complement to the spare setting, which uses sticks of furniture but no walls or doors, and no outdoor elements besides the beginning of a nearby mountain. (You’ll never have witnessed such archness from people like Clarkson and Skarsgard; Bettany is fluttering and pale, in every sense if the word; and Bacall and Gazarra serve up some of their worst performances ever.) The production team does as well as it can with the stagebound concept, although even within this context the jittery, hand-held photography by Anthony Dod Mantle is likely to irritate rather than give pleasure.
Did I mention that to increase the level of pretension, von Trier divides his film up into a prologue and nine titled chapters, and adds a fruity narration to tell us what’s going to happen, is happening, and has happened, delivered with in smacking, orotund tones by John Hurt? That’s yet another reason why it’s so ironic that at the close James Caan should show up as a mobster boss and engage in a long, heavy-handed conversation about arrogance: the writer-director means to excoriate American hubris, of course, but what he makes all too evident is his own. “Dogville” intends to put down the New World, but it’s this mutt of a movie that deserves to suffer that fate.