Lars von Trier, the mad scientist of modern cinema, has outdone himself with Dogville. After similar experiments in the allegorical degradation and suffering of a female protagonist (Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, inspired in no small part by that other "Passion," Dryer's The Passion of Joan of Arc), Dogville likewise provides a tour de force for an actress—here, Nicole Kidman—in the role of a woman who, through some fault of her own, but chiefly by the inhumanity of her peers, inhabits a personal realm which is, in turns, heavenly and hellish.
Told in a prologue and nine parts (each layered with folksy/misanthropic narration delivered by John Hurt), von Trier's adventurous film brings the virtues of theatre and novelistic fiction to bear on the story of Dogville, a small, Depression-era Rocky Mountain town depicted on screen in little more than blueprint form, oft viewed from overhead. By theoretically, more than physically, defining walls and roofs, von Trier allows easy, even naked, access to the denizens of the town, and underlines the lack of privacy and the willful ignorance of suffering endemic in American culture (among others). America's iconographic promises also prove illusive, like the town's main drag Elm Street, which lacks any elm trees. Down Elm Street stumbles a fugitive outsider by the name of Grace (Kidman), who endures a disingenuous measure of acceptance from the townspeople (an astounding ensemble including Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Patricia Clarkson, Stellan Skarsgård, Chloë Sevigny, Harriet Andersson, Jeremy Davies, Zeljko Ivanek, and Blair Brown), followed by a prolonged scourging and purging of her human soul.
Kidman finds a mostly ineffectual ally in the town's self-appointed philosopher, Tom Edison, Jr (Paul Bettany). The proverbial light bulb over Tom's head at the time of Grace's arrival is the notion that Dogville has a problem with receiving. Making an object lesson of Grace, Tom suggests allowing Grace to hide out in town for a two-week trial period. If she proves herself to be of good character, she can stay; if she fails to convince even one townsperson, she will be banished. Either way, Grace's discovery—by either the authorities or the gangsters from whom she fled—seems inevitable. Advancing his moral mission, Tom advises Grace to curry favor by giving of her time and energy to the townspeople, but for all she gives, she finds herself in earthly debt to the Dogvillians, who fail to purely accept Grace (literally and figuratively).
Dogville, made by a Dane who has infamously never set foot in America, plays like a nightmare amalgam of Thornton Wilder, Shirley Jackson, and Mark Twain. Von Trier also plies other influences, from Bertolt Brecht to Voltaire to Greek and Roman mythology to the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps not all of these influences were conscious, but natural outgrowths of the director's fable-like design (von Trier, for example, claims to have been supplied with Our Town during filming). Either way, von Trier's technique invites audiences to see as much as is on the screen and much more: certainly a critique of American certitude (armored by denial, delusion, and hypocrisy) and a damning indictment of human nature (coercive, greedy, guilty, but unrepentant).
In part, then, Dogville is a European's take on Puritanical American repression: the town ("rotten from the inside out," growls Skarsgård) embraces Stoicism as an expression of their instinctive need for propriety. Americans, von Trier seems also to say, will take what they can take, and view giving as an invitation to take whatever they please; indeed, even the gift of beauty is a devilish tease to take without asking. Unequivocally, von Trier also sees Grace as a symbol of the immigrant experience, the grudgingly allowed transgressor of borders, subject to her hosts' leverage of power. The American townspeople withhold equality and, worse, place a millstone around one "yearning to be free." (Before you limit Dogville to anti-Americanism, know that the director was partly inspired by his own country's immigration woes.)
Human tendencies—like envy, haste to judgment, and a rush to shift blame—victimize Grace, but finally put the townspeople in hot water. This Sodom or Gomorrah faces a fickle fate of forgiveness or wrath, debated by Grace and the capo di tutti capo (a late-arriving James Caan). Their pedantic debate is comical, stimulating, and perhaps—to an exhausted audience of three hours time—a bit mind-numbing. Are these two human stars of a Revenger's Tragedy, a Messiah and God, a fallen angel and Satan? Take your pick.
It's easy to see why Dogville has inspired as much vitriol as admiration. Von Trier's public persona is more gleefully provocative now than ever (his studio, Zentropa Pictures, produces porn as well as mainstream cinema, and he's well known for hazing his actors on and off his sets), and his style and progressively less subtle content press up against the viewer to meet either acquiescence or resistance. For better or worse, Dogville is unlikely to produce ambivalent responses. To me, von Trier mostly justifies his choices, filling the off-putting running time with theatrically proficient master-class scenes in modern dramatic style and guiding Kidman, first among equals in the stellar cast, to a defining performance which balances her glamour with her persistent goal of earthiness (which recently failed to convince in Cold Mountain or, to some degree, in The Human Stain).
The director claims both Grace and Tom—a man who aspires to illustration of his ideas—as his alter egos in the film. After his muddy, handheld digital photography—and by way of illustration—Von Trier's coup de grace is a photo montage based in Danish photographer Jacob Holdt's "American Pictures" and scored to David Bowie's "Young Americans." Images from Dorothea Lange to Holdt's snaps of the modern underclass and victims of American racism arrive again at the snapping dog that, fair or no, looks a lot like America to the rest of the world.