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In a lengthy interview — beware directors who spend five pages explaining what they have not been able to explain in a three-hour-long film — Lars von Trier says, "There's a limit to how nice a film should look. If it looks too nice, I throw up."

Guess what: Mr. von Trier's latest made me throw up. And there's nothing nice about it, either.

Lars von Trier is quite possibly the best-known European film director today. He's got everything going for him — a short, easy-to-pronounce name with an aristocratic von; an accident of birth in a small, rich, civilized country with scant cinematic output (quick, name other famous Danish directors); and a chance to produce his own films. Not only has he managed his career beautifully — every single one of his movies has been an official selection in Cannes, plus he signed his name to a manifesto called Dogma '95, thus mastering a transition from a director to an artiste — but he has talent to spare, too. So for an optimist like myself, it's a damn shame that the author of the exhilarating The Kingdom (which, along with Dennis Potter's oeuvre, belongs among the best TV ever made — it's like St. Elsewhere on acid) and violent, passionate Breaking the Waves, has slid down to making cold boring agitprop like Dogville.

Perhaps Dogville is an inevitable follow-up to Dancer in the Dark, that impossibly silly pastiche that was as bad as it was unexpected. It was panned by American critics who dared accuse le maitre of anti-Americanism, especially without having ever visited the States (le maitre must have principles). If one reads his interview correctly, von T's response was that of a petulant child: Aha, you don't like it? Here's more for you…

To me, Dogville's main problem is not von T's overwhelming misanthropy (no obstacle to creating art), nor his misogynism (ditto), nor his anti-Americanism (practically a requirement for a card-carrying international artiste), nor even his passionate hypocrisy in denying all of the above. The film is boring. It is clearly the work of an artist whose ego has by light years outstripped his talent.

First, the basics: at the height of the Depression, a beautiful girl named Grace (Nicole Kidman, whose natural woodenness is actually a good fit here) walks into Dogville, a tiny town somewhere in the Rockies. After hesitation — she seems to be pursued by bad guys — and urged by the local "intellectual" called Tom Edison, the locals accept Grace in their midst. Although clearly a rich kid, she finds innocent joys in tutoring children, changing sheets for the disabled, and picking apples in the orchard. But then it seems that the bad guys have enlisted the help of the law, and the local sheriff puts up a wanted sign, where Grace is implicated in bank robberies and other crimes. The denizens know full well that it is not true — she was in town at the time — but the relations go sour. Soon, she is forced to work double shifts, and after being raped, she makes up her mind to leave. The escape fails, and things get worse — she becomes a town slave, kept on a chain, forced to toil from dawn to dusk, and raped by every man in town night after night. Finally, Tom calls up the bad guys, and the town is waiting for their reward, which arrives soon enough… For purely professional reasons, I won't give away the ending — some might like it, but in no way it improves on the film.

A pretty dim view of mankind, no? But then, von T's dark side was abundantly on display in Breaking the Waves, too, and then in Idiots and in Dancer in the Dark. But those were films; this one is a play, acted out on a soundstage, with streets and houses marked in chalk. Didn't von T ever go to an acting school, if only to visit? Doesn't he realize how boring it is to watch actors knock on invisible doors and turn invisible keys for three hours? To listen to pseudo-English dialogue, badly translated from Danish — deliberately badly, he insists — plus a voice-over that confirms our worst fears about pedantry of Germanic humor and is actually longer than the dialogue itself? There are no characters here — there are only stick figures put on stage to mouth the maestro's philosophy. Chief among them is Tom Edison (Tom Bettany), a writer who never wrote anything and a local intellectual manqué. Here von T's politics come out and his misanthropy reaches new heights: not only are the lower classes, as personified by Dogville's denizens, unworthy of our sympathy, but liberal intellectuals are even worse, with their constant compromise that ultimately amounts to betrayal. A card-carrying Euroartiste knows the true (Shining?) path — but we're not there yet. Maybe in the next installment we'll have the revolt of the masses.

This is a film whose sparse cinematic qualities are so overwhelmed by theoretical posturing that it practically invites film academics to muse on what it means that the streets and gooseberry bushes are marked in chalk, while the apples are real — and so are the rapes. By now von T has made rape of his women characters a staple; but where Emily Watson was all misguided love and passion, Nicole Kidman is weak acceptance and instant pardon of the rapist. Every man in Dogville takes advantage of her, so finally Grace is too tired and disgusted to accept Tom when he finally arrives to profess his love — and consummate it, too. In his interview, von T glibly notes that Tom is "the guy who never gets the girl." Does it take a feminist to be offended? Does von T lack sensitivity in the English language, where "the boy gets the girl" has breezy romantic overtones, or he just doesn't know the difference between sex and rape?

In view of the above, the film's anti-Americanism is probably not its worst crime, but, rather, a reflection of modern Euroculture (von T's is not as bad as some of the quickies that made up the 9/11 omnibus, but at least those were mercifully short). What's repulsive is von T's hypocrisy in maintaining, straight-faced, that Dogville is Anytown, anywhere on earth. No kidding. With the elaborate Fourth of July celebration and portraits of Nixon and stock footage of fat white southern cops from the '60s (why travel, when your mind is bursting with clichés?) and David Bowie singing "Young Americans" — yeah, we could be in Bulgaria. Von T's anti-Americanism is so consistent that he throws in Thomas Edison (the character's name) and even poor Mark Twain (Tom Edison's father reads Tom Sawyer throughout). Does von T see anything redeemable about this Sodom and Gomorrah (see the ending)? Or do all of us hypocrites deserve Osama's rage?

I could go on and speculate about the peculiar coincidence that, counter to von T's view of human nature, only Danish citizens — in the whole of Europe — following their King's example, sewed on yellow stars and finally put their Jews on boats and shipped them to the safety of Sweden. Is von T still mad about that? But I'm running out of vitriol here, fast. Let me try to wrap it up: in the final scene Grace's father (played by James Caan, seldom as unconvincing as the gangster philosopher here) accuses her of arrogance. Now, coming within the last five minutes of screen time, that makes for a truly authorial statement, with which I will happily concur: yes, this is an utterly arrogant work of, er, Art — I guess. Perhaps it takes a true arrogance of artistic vision to weave hypocrisy and boredom as seamlessly as Lars von Trier does in Dogville.

[rating: 0.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Lions Gate Films
Movie Web site: Dogville



Photos: © 2004 Lions Gate Films. All rights reserved.