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For a movie that almost no one has seen, Dogville has a lot of buzz both positive and negative. So far it is only playing in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. Even though Dogville is a much deeper and better made film than the other most talked about film of the year, The Passion of the Christ, it is unlikely to be a big hit. One reason is that Dogville runs 177 minutes. Another reason is that this is the kind of weird European film that will mystify most Americans. Finally, there's the rumor that this film is anti-American. Dogville is the product of the fevered mind of Lars von Trier, the famous Danish director and founder of the Dogme 95 movement. His previous films in English are Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. Like the latter film, Dogville is set in the United States, a country which von Trier has never visited. Dancer in the Dark is an interesting but whacked-out musical starring Bjork. Dogville is not a musical but it is a strange film nevertheless.
This movie tells the story of a mysterious woman (Nicole Kidman) on the run, who appears in a very small town in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. The town of Dogville is like Our Town crossed with Village of the Damned. Everything seems normal at first. The townspeople are suspicious of Kidman and must hold a town meeting to decide what to do. One of the townspeople, a young writer who doesn't write (Paul Bettany) suggests that Kidman could work in exchange for staying in the town. So she begins to do odd jobs for the storekeeper (Lauren Bacall), the farmer (Stellan Skarsgård), the blind man (Ben Gazzara), the truck driver (Zeljko Ivanek) and various others (Patricia Clarkson, Chloë Sevigny, Jeremy Davies and Blair Brown). Without giving too much away, I will say that things go downhill fast or at least as fast as this three hour movie will let it. It turns out that the townspeople are a bit judgmental and take a a dim view of Kidman's seeming to act as if she is above them all. Only Bettany takes her side as he falls in love with her. Kidman's life in Dogville becomes a living hell. She tries to escape and is punished for it. She and the other residents of Dogville are in the death spiral of all death spirals.
The art direction of Dogville is very minimalist. The buildings and street of the town are laid out in chalk marks. So is the dog. A few actual doors, and pieces of buildings stand but there are no walls. So, one can see what the whole town is up to at any given moment. To this is added many aerial shots of the town and a narrator (John Hurt) who describes the action along with chapter titles. All of this gives one the feeling that a bedtime story is being told to the audience. But it's a story that will give you nightmares. The cast that I listed above is impressive. I'm sure everyone wants to make a movie with von Trier. They all do a good job, even though, with the possible exception of Kidman, there isn't a likeable character in the whole town. You have to watch to the end of the movie to see if you think Kidman should be an exception. She does a really good job here as usual, although at least on the surface, her character could be the same one she played recently in Cold Mountain ( a much nicer town). Paul Bettany is beginning to make a mark as a great character actor, as his recent parts in A Kinght's Tale, A Beautiful Mind, and Master and Commander show. Here, he is positively scary. It's really nice to see the old pros, Bacall and Gazzara, in action. I could go on and on about the cast. Clarkson (The Station Agent) is doing one great role after another, and I love Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting).
This movie is purposely long. It is trying to wear down the audience as it wears down Kidman's character. By the end, you feel like you have been through a war. And the ending which is anything but happy, feels happy because, by then, you are suffering from post-traumatic-stress syndrome. You won't think about the possible anti-American subtext until you watch the photographs accompanying the final credits. Then, it will definitely occur to you. Dogville has a whole lot of layers. I can't really get into them more without giving too much away. But this film has to be seen. You may not like it but it will give you more to talk about than any other movie you will see this year.