The America in his head

Von Trier’s misanthropic take on Our Town

Apr 21, 2004 at 12:00 am

Danish writer-director Lars von Trier’s latest affront is a lugubrious fable with an intriguing beginning, a powerful ending and a narcotizing middle stretch. Filmed on a soundstage with minimal dressing — houses and streets are indicated by chalk marks on the floor — it plays like a Bizarro World version of Our Town, where the only thing one can depend on is the triumph of everybody’s worst instincts. Ostensibly set in a small town in the Rocky Mountains during the Depression (but actually taking place in some gloomy corner of von Trier’s misanthropic imagination), the story is divided into nine chapters and narrated with ironic understatement by John Hurt. The cumulative effect of all this artifice is a feeling of detachment from the characters which is effectively exploded by the story’s climax but which is also wearying in a film which, at three hours, is simply way too long.

Von Trier has never been to America, and seems unduly proud of the fact; there’s less verisimilitude in this epic of ersatz Americana than there are borrowed artistic concepts — the small town secrets are reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson, the anti-dramatic stylization is Brechtian, the despair against stripped-down backdrops recalls Samuel Beckett, etc. Dogville is first presented as an essentially innocent small town that seems to be living in a simpler past, isolated from Depression-era modernism, hewing to the old traditional values. Into this Eden wanders Grace (Nicole Kidman), on the lam from gangsters for reasons that will be the film’s mystery. She’s befriended first by Tom (Paul Bettany), a young and idealistic aspiring writer, and then by the town folk, who adopt her and are willing to hide her if the bad guys show up.

Von Trier has assembled a great cast that includes Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, James Caan and the legendary Bergman actress Harriet Andersson, but most of the heavy lifting is done by Kidman, Bettany and Stellan Skarsgard as the town’s most egregious heavy. Without giving away too much, just let it be noted that when things go sour in a von Trier’s movie, they sour in a particularly vicious way. And like a lot of his films (The Kingdom and Dancer In The Dark, in particular) Dogville seems poised somewhere between being a serious work of art and a great practical joke. But this time von Trier’s inspiration falters and the film’s dour middle is leaden. As a result it’s an only intermittently engaging trudge to a boldly bleak ending.


Showing exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Road, Bloomfield Hills). Call 248-855-9091.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].