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Published February 13th, 2004 | by Ed Colley

Dogville Review

Director: Lars Von Trier Rating: 4/5

Following the fortunes of Grace, a fugitive who seeks refuge in the small American community of Dogville, Danish director Lars Von Trier’s latest film of the same name is bound to elicit a veritable smorgasbord of reactions.

Considering that Grace’s relationship with Dogville eventually deteriorates into her becoming a slave for the townsfolk, plus the fact that the film ends with gruesome shots of America’s under-class set to David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’, US critics, for starters, have taken considerable umbrage at what they see as Von Trier once again taking fairly unsubtle potshots at the most powerful country in the world.

It’s not just our friends across the pond who might take offence, however. Others could well be royally ticked off not just politically but artistically as well: given that the entire film is shot Dogme-lite style on one sound stage with no sets, Dogville does at times look and feel like a sixth-form college’s £200-budget version of a Brecht play (which is unsurprising, as Trier has gone on record to say that ‘Pirate Jenny’, the song by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, is a major influence on the film).

So, like the director’s previous work, when Dogville hits these shores it will most likely be a love-it-or-hate it affair. Yet, no matter how one feels about the film as political message or visual art-form, there’s no denying that Trier has not only put together a mouth-watering cast, but has also produced a film that, for once, forces its audience to think.

It is indicative of the interest Trier has sparked throughout the movie industry that he has managed to bring together a vast array of talent. As well as the familiar appearance of Von Trier stalwart Stellan Skarsgard, the director has also secured the services of hot-new talents such as Paul Bettany and Chloe Sevigny, old hands Ben Gazzara, James Caan and John Hurt and, and most impressively (considering she spends a majority of her time sweeping in the background), screen-legend Lauren Bacall. When you direct your entire movie on a sound stage with no sets, good performances are going to help you, and this cast certainly delivers for Von Trier.

Yet the biggest casting rabbit Von Trier’s pulls out of his eccentric Danish hat is a career-best performance from Nicole Kidman as Grace. Looking at her recent efforts (as the overwhelmingly unbelievable cleaning lady in The Human Stain, or displaying a Southern accent to rival that of South Park’s ‘you will respect my authoritay’ Cartman in Cold Mountain) you could be forgiven into thinking that Kidman’s star, creatively at least, was on the wane. But in Dogville she surpasses all expectations, putting in a beautifully tragic performance that could so easily have descended into parody, and more than holding her own in the top-notch cast.

Another of Dogville’s strengths is its story and the arguments imbued within it. Although coming in at a whopping three hours and never leaving the same defined physical space, Dogville doesn’t feel that it has constrained itself with its own limitations. Rather, the audience is kept wrapt by the rise, fall and rise again of Grace’s fortune. At first, when the, at-first, wary community accepts Grace, the film feels almost like a treatise on acceptance. But then Von Trier turns the table on his unsuspecting audience: as the threat of Grace’s fugitive status becomes ever more pronounced, all happiness is drained away, and any hope for Dogville’s redemption is literally blown to pieces in the film’s intense, horrifying denouement, which contains some of the most graphically violent and emotionally devastating scenes committed to celluloid in recent memory.

Trier hooks onto this gripping story a plethora of arguments and ideas regarding love, acceptance, the potential emptiness of the artistic ideal, revenge and vengeance. Although much of what he has to say is unsubtly crowbarred in at the end of the film, it is enough to ensure that a multitude of thoughts and opinions linger long after the film has ended.

Some critics have claimed Dogville to be an uncompromising condemnation of America, or at least what could be regarded as American imperialism. And there is little doubt that the film often feels like one-long ‘up yours’ from Von Trier to all of his American critics who complained after his last film, Dancer in the Dark, that he makes claims about a country he knows little about. But to concentrate on any supposed American-bashing within Dogville is to make it a lesser film, and to detract from all that it is trying to say about the universalistic aspects of human nature.

Dogville is that rare beast – a beautifully artistic endeavour that attempts to challenge your assumptions about the world whilst giving you a deeply emotional experience in the bargain. As such, Dogville is a film that demands, and deserved, to be watched – even if it does end-up being a damn brutal experience.

Many thanks to the London Jewish News and TotallyJewish for use of this review.

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