Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dogville (2003)***

“Dogville” at times manages to overcome both appalling artiness and interminable length to deliver an experience that’s haunting and hypnotic. Set in the 1930s, this Wagnerian version of “Our Town” features an astonishing performance by Nicole Kidman, as an apparent runaway gun moll who seeks sanctuary from her gruff pursuers in a remote Colorado backwater. The film is shot entirely on a stage environment using only the merest suggestion of scenery, an idea that at first seems heavy-handed and a bit silly.

But as the film progresses, this Spartan visual treatment takes on an odd sort of logic, as it enables a fascinating, and at times shocking, voyeurism into the characters’ everyday lives. The interdependency of small town life, with all its shifting loyalties and murky personal dynamics, is captured with credibility. The acting by the large ensemble cast is really quite remarkable, and the film serves as a clear reminder that the stage is truly an actor’s medium.

Paul Bettany, as Kidman’s protector Tom, strikes a compelling balance of cold calculation and wide-eyed innocence. Patricia Clarkson is at her best as a wounded, but far from defeated, spirit; a character type she has had little opportunity to portray in recent years. And veterans such as Blair Brown, Ben Gazzara, and legendary Lauren Bacall lend excellent, if under-utilized, support.

The only disappointment is the usually superb Stellan Skarsgard, who grunts and huffs and slurs his way through some line readings that are memorable only for their unorthodoxy. Perhaps that’s why there were no sets: Skarsgard ate them during rehearsals.

But this is Kidman’s picture, as she again slums in a cutting edge art-film; serving notice that she has the acting chops to compete with the elite talents of her profession. It is only her beauty and some questionable project choices that have kept her from obtaining that status.

The script is about as allegorical as a story with an actual plot can be, and is subject to a head-spinning number of interpretations. There is obvious anti-American sentiment here, but the scope is much larger than that; indeed the target seems to be the last 200 years of the History of White People. There are allusions to slavery, the Holocaust, the repression of women, the exploitation of labor, religious tyranny and just about every other horrid thing that white men in well-tailored suits have ever been a part of.

But von Trier is not content with a mere Earthly narrative arc. In the final act, the film veers toward a Yahweh vs. Jesus smackdown, and rarely have the thematic differences in the testaments been rendered in such stark opposition. It’s not entirely successful and, like just about everything else in the film, ultimately overstates its case. For a filmmaker who deals so heavily in symbolic mysticism, at times von Trier seems awfully worried that audiences won’t really get it, so he starts drawing big red arrows to his clever metaphorical constructions. We end up with a conclusion that feels sloppily devised, and a weak pay-off for a three hour investment.

For all its strengths, “Dogville” is very nearly undermined by the typical excesses of director Lars von Trier, who has yet to find the line between artistic and annoying. His cameras sputter and shake and jitterbug their way through quiet and poignant moments that scream for technical simplicity. Von Trier is clearly a passionate filmmaker, with a real gift for directing actors, but his stubborn insistence on indulging every experimental instinct often works to the detriment of his product.

The Skinny on Dogville