Von Trier is a film maker who divides opinion. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, Derek’s replacement, considers him a hoaxer. Variety’s Todd McCarthy was one of the many critics who were uncomfortable with the apparent anti-American stance in this film.
He came to attention for his participation in the Dogme 95 manifesto that called for an ascetic film technique that defined a set of strict rules to create an authentic, hand-held, neo-realism on speed. His most notable contributions to this self-conscious movement are probably BREAKING THE WAVES (1996) and THE IDIOTS (1988) which are striking, unsettling films that push the boundaries in many different directions. I understand Bradshaw’s throw-away comment to the extent that the gimmickry sometimes sends scenes into the realms of silliness. Often there’s a sense that he is toying with the audience, playing games, which is fine, but you never know why. In the case of BREAKING THE WAVES the sensitive and intriguing drama is compromised by the technique and there is a inherent cruelty behind the game-playing.
DOGVILLE is a more developed and mature experiment in film-making and there is a narrative and stylistic coherence that is sometimes lacking in some of his earlier efforts.
Grace (Nicole Kidman) seeks refuge in the eponymous small town at the foot of the Rockies. She is apparently on the run from unspecified gangsters so Tom Edison (Paul Bettnay) convinces the townsfolk to harbour her in exchange for favours. What follows is a fine piece of ensemble acting as the characters in the town form a relationship with the beautiful innocence of Grace. Ben Gazzana is excellent as Jack McKay, a blind man in denial, and Lauren Bacall brings a significant presence to the role of a waspish shop owner. Grace becomes gently assimilated into the community, so gentle in fact that it prompted Dom to question the 15 certificate.
Steadily the demands for favours become more and more extreme until she is literally chained to the town and the certificate becomes justified. Kidman gives an excellent turn as an injured innocent and holds the whole concept together perfectly with an assured, delicate performance that really brings Grace alive in a film where the director is challenging the humanistic response from the audience with a satirical undercurrent. He adopts the theatrical methods of Brecht to alienate the audience from becoming too absorbed in the narrative: captions announce the different chapters (explaining what it about to happen in the style of Dickens), John Hurt delivers a sardonic, sarcastic voice-over that makes that bloke who does Come Dine with Me sound sincere, and, there are no sets.
There are no sets. An elegant overhead shot shows the street mapped out in white lines and and industrial-lettering marking out the various points in the town within a huge sound stage, including the location of the dog that is not seen until the final shot where it bares its teeth at the camera. The cast remain visible, going about their lives, while the main action is taking place.
This is an outsider’s view of America that is making a bold critique about how immigrants are treated. Von Trier has never been to America and never will due to his aversion to travel. The US critics used this to attack the film’s anti-Americanism, however Von Trier rightly says that the Hollywood version of Casablanca doesn’t need to have any fidelity to the original place to tell a story. Like his earlier films, he has retains his ability to provoke ire, whether down to the wrathful conclusion to the film, or the strange juxtaposition of disco Bowie with images of suffering American immigrants.
Long may he continue to provoke and annoy.
P.S. there’s unlikely to be a more cosmopolitan co-production on the list!