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Lars von Trier
by Jack Stevenson

. "Dogville"

Lars Von Trier's 3 hour staged fable seems to be conveying the message that when a community without an enforced legal system is left to its own selfish inclinations, and when it formulates morality to conform to the convenience of its worst impulses, the final justice and retribution, if there is to be any, will come from a gangster's gun. This, it seems to me, is more humorous than serious; more sardonic than witty.

Which is not to say that this piece of original theatre isn't a finely crafted piece of work that may be taken seriously, although one can argue quite justifiably that it need not have taken 3 ambulatory hours to make whatever point it was trying for. It's my belief that no film can justify more than 2 hours unless it's a word for word screen presentation of Shakespeare.

If Von Trier has ever used the medium of film to provoke his international audience, this is right up there with the best and worst of his efforts. Again, he uses a woman as a vessel for compromise, attack and brutalization (see "The Dancer"). In other words, when you, as an actor playing a character submit to his penchant for free form experimentation, you can expect to be subjected to gross indignity by a kaleidoscope of dissatisfactions.

The sad tale he concocts for us takes place in the supposed Rocky Mountain township of Dogville, where the road peters out at the entrance to the abandoned silver mine. We presume the buildings and limited infrastructure were built around the mine when the precious metal was actively being extracted. Now, it's just an obsure, difficult to reach hamlet with a bunch of ingrown neighbors, satisfied and petulant, smug and obdurate.

Into this maelstrom of activity going nowhere, comes the beautous Grace (Nicole Kidman), in her chic fur, lost, wandering, escaping from some unstated doom. She's rescued from her aimless wandering by Tom (Paul Bettany) who seems to be taking the role of prayer leader cum mayor of the place. Instantly taken by the comliness of this unexpected and vulnerable waif, his first job is to convince her to hide out in Dogville and next, to convince the residents that Grace will not only not be a burden, but will devote her days to helping each and every one of them.

The arrangement starts with distrust but her devotion to her duties gains her majority support. But the morally feeble texture of the alliance here falls sway to greater and greater demands on a too-willing Grace until it becomes complete, bizarre servitude. Betrayal, debasement, and exploitation take turns in exposing the hypocrisy and utter meanness that lies below self-righteous pretentiousness. And, then, the people who have been looking for Grace from the outside world, who pose a mortal threat to her, show up in black, shiny limousines. Perdition and payoff are not far behind.

The remaining dramatis personae, consisting of Tom's father (Phillip Baker Hall), Martha (Siobhan Fallon), Bill (Jeremy Davies), Bill's older sister Liz (Chloe Sevigny), Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara), Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), Chuck (Stellan Skarsgaard), Ben (Zelko Ivanec), Vera (Patricia Clarkson) and Grace's father (James Caan) all serve Von Trier's purposes admirably in his minimalist experiment in creating symbolic characters that defy credibility. I left feeling I'd had an experience with a novel curiosity by a pretentious talent, and an increased appreciation of Nicole Kidman's range of collaborative flexibility, to the extent that my admiration could be raised.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Nicole Kidman
The overwilling Grace.

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