Sun May 9, 2004
That "Dogville" is unlike any other film in this century should satisfy the cinephiles.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
In Shirley Jackson's classic short story, "The Lottery," a seemingly benign town is gradually revealed on a festive day to be renewing its annual stoning of a townsperson selected at random. With characteristic understatement, Jackson states that "the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for the noon dinner." Lars von Trier's ("Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark") "Dogville" evokes a similar ironic sweetness and malevolence, his most problematic and masterful cinematic allegory.
"Problematic" because the allegory is multileveled with no pat interpretations, and it is almost 3 hours of slow-paced, stylized setting and dialogue. That "Dogville" is unlike any other film in this century should satisfy the cinephiles looking for a unique and challenging experience. I am moved by it; I will never forget it.
Because Jackson's masterpiece explores the underbelly of communal America, Thornton Wilder's play, "Our Town, " is remembered better for its optimistic view of life in America. Undoubtedly many see "Dogville" as the antithesis of that play. But both have the all-wise narrator and stilted speech to tip off the audiences to the allegorical underpinning. In Wilder the simple life is affirmed; in von Trier life is dominated by original sin (apples abound), fertility rites, and the almost admirable control of gangsters in America's Depression Era.
"Dogville" depicts the arrival of a gang-related beauty (Nicole Kidman) to the town of 15 people. Like Flannery O'Connor's outsider, the displaced person, she changes things, first with her industriousness and then with her revenge. The town itself turns into a gangster mob capable of rape and slavery. The possible correlation with contemporary America in Iraq and elsewhere is not a stretch--there is the destructiveness of rabid ideology and groupthink. In the end, the powerful force of Darwinian survival with "nature red in tooth and claw" satisfies me that von Trier is channeling humanity, not just America.
Von Trier's stripped down set and dialogue give the thoughtful viewer a chance to ruminate about the possible levels of meaning rather than marvel at the great American FX. Another challenging film has arrived at the same time: "Kitchen Stories" has von Trier as script consultant. The characteristic minimalism of a Dogma founder is there as well as the dry irony.
For those complaining the director who criticizes America has never been there (he also set "Dancer" in the U.S.), remember Stephen Crane ("Red Badge of Courage") never went to war. Human nature these artists do know, regardless of their travels.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.