"Without publicity," that great ringmaster P.T. Barnum once said, "a terrible thing happens: nothing!" It's a lesson that has never been lost on one of Barnum's spiritual sons, the fitfully brilliant Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. Part carny, part genius, Von Trier has been manufacturing minor tempests for years, most recently with his latest scandal, "Dogville." A movie in which Nicole Kidman gets kicked around by Mr. and Mrs. USA and David Bowie sings about "young Americans" over photographs of brutalized human refuse, the three-hour opus was the excited, at times bitter talk of last year's Cannes film festival.
Loudly decried as anti-American in some quarters and hailed a masterpiece in others, "Dogville" was the right movie for that edition of Cannes. The festival had needed a shock to its system and Von Trier was an old hand with the electrodes. For the more than 3,000 restless journalists in attendance, the premiere of an anti-American epic so soon after the U.S. had launched a war that was largely unpopular in Europe and especially France was manna from hype heaven. A year later, with the war depressing old news and attention having drifted to such weapons of mass-cultural destruction as Janet Jackson's breast, it's hard to see what the fuss was about. It is, however, easier to see "Dogville" for what it is — a provocation, a coup de théâtre and three hours of tedious experimentation.
The slyly simple story opens as, once upon a time in America, a young fugitive, Grace (Nicole Kidman), takes refuge in a Rocky Mountain township called Dogville. Initially suspicious of the stranger, the townspeople take Grace into their cautious embrace and gradually offer her shelter, work and fellowship. She weeds a gooseberry patch belonging to a cranky shopkeeper (Lauren Bacall), keeps company with a lonely blind man (Ben Gazzara), giggles with the local women (including Chloë Sevigny and Patricia Clarkson) and embarks on a wan romance with the town's self-appointed moral compass, Tom Edison (Paul Bettany). But the milk of human kindness sours quickly in Dogville, and after old doubts and new fear surface, Grace finds herself cast out again, this time with disastrous results.
Set on a large soundstage with a smattering of props — with the houses, streets and even a family dog rendered in white outline on the dark floor — "Dogville" is the apotheosis of art-house high concept. Written by Von Trier and shot in digital video, the story advances on occasionally conflicting parallel tracks — in a voice-over spoken by British actor John Hurt and in the action played out by the international cast. The intermittent narration furnishes exegesis as well as the slow, steady drip of irony. The some two dozen cast members, meanwhile, supply the meager visual distraction by going through their pantomime paces — closing invisible doors, picking invisible apples — with nary a raised eyebrow. The language is stripped down, reminiscent of social plays of the 1930s, and the influence of Bertolt Brecht is palpable.
The deconstructed set and the mannered line readings are clearly the filmmaker's bid to destroy the illusion of classical realist cinema by showing us the stitching. But Von Trier's intentions — or at least his results — could not be further from the deep-rooted idealism of social drama, in which hope flickers however faintly. Driven by a Hobbesian conception of human beings as engaged in a war of all against all, Von Trier uses the familiar conceit of an individual in crisis as a springboard for his usual fixations. As in his last three dramas "Breaking the Waves," "The Idiots" and "Dancer in the Dark," Von Trier's so-called Golden-Heart Trilogy about martyred women, he again employs the spectacle of female suffering as the basis for what has become a depressingly cruel and merciless worldview.
Never a lover of humanity, at least on screen, Von Trier is inordinately fond of brutalizing his female characters. Among the more easily disinterred reasons is the influence of the late Carl Theodore Dreyer, the director of cinematic masterpieces such as "The Passion of Joan of Arc" and "Day of Wrath." A filmmaker who certainly loved the image of weeping women, the earlier great Dane has exerted a profound impact on Von Trier. Dreyer's influence on Von Trier can principally be detected in the latter's ongoing preoccupations with religious faith and divine grace and his attempts to establish new cinematic paradigms, as stated in the infamous Dogma proclamation. But unlike Dreyer, whose interest in film form is inseparable from his interest in human nature, Von Trier takes gleeful delight in sacrificing his characters on the altar of his formalist experiments.
Given the filmmaker's talent for provocation and how little regard he generally shows for all his characters, it's reductive to decry "Dogville" as simply (or simple) anti-Americanism. It would also miss the film's other target. Von Trier takes some easy, uncomfortable jabs at the country — or, rather, a sentimentalized, Norman Rockwell idea of the country — but because the digs are devoid of historical and political specificity the criticisms come across as fundamentally toothless. (He's not exactly Michael Moore.) What he's also after here, what also has Von Trier in a lather, is the realist cinema that built Hollywood and which the industry has helped export to the world. Principally because it's a cinematic practice that's radically at odds with his own aesthetic mission and, perhaps just a little, because Hollywood's dominance puts a terrible squeeze on non-American cinema.
Von Trier's frustrations are understandable. Internationally recognized as a major auteur, he remains a marginalized figure in the U.S., as a filmmaker vigorously engaged in pushing the edge of the cinematic envelope, regulated to the ghetto of the art house. That doesn't make "Dogville" and Kidman's suffering more pleasant to watch, but it helps furnish some context that cries of anti-Americanism, especially these days, might obscure. Still, given the tenor of these days, I wish this exceptionally talented filmmaker would put aside his dog-eat-dog sadism and wallowing self-indulgence. Writing about Brecht and Arthur Miller in the mid-1950s, theater critic Kenneth Tynan pledged, "I shall continue to applaud all plays that are honestly frivolous, devoutly disengaged; but I shall reserve my cheers for the play in which man among men, not man against men, is the well-spring of tragedy."
Then as now, we need dogs that can rip the throat out of injustice, not just bark up their own tree.
'Dogville' MPAA rating: R for violence and sexual content Times guidelines: Rape, gun violence Nicole Kidman...Grace Lauren Bacall...Ma Ginger Paul Bettany...Tom Edison Ben Gazzara...Jack McKay Chloë Sevigny...Liz Henson Released by Lions Gate Films. Writer-director Lars von Trier. Producer Vibeke Windelov. Director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle. Camera operator Lars von Trier. Casting Avy Kaufman, Joyce Nettles.