Warning: No Spoilers Ahead
Ever wonder if the other person -- including, or perhaps especially, a critic -- has seen the same film you just did? Your stinker drew raves and awards, and what you loved is greeted with irony, yawns, the silence of oblivion. Did he/she/they actually watch the whole thing, you wonder.
So, an admission here: no, I saw only some sixty of Dogville's hundred seventy-seven minutes, first one screening projector proving balky, then the other fusing a lamp. Nicole Kidman, the movie's leading lady, has not lit me up aside from To Die For, where diabolical plot carried the weight, anyway, and this film's very title screamed for snide remarks.
But the Prologue and first three (of nine) titled and heavily narrated (by a perfect-voiced John Hurt) Chapters of Lars von Trier's Dogville are marvel enough that, even though anything is possible, two hours more would have been hard-pressed to ruin it. Original screening was at the New York Film Festival last fall, but release was pushed back to March 26 (2004); running time has not been cut, however, and it would be surprising if this difficult and adventurous work should find commercial success. There were walkouts in that one hour, so the whole shebang will clearly exhaust the patience of audiences geared to movies that act like movies.
Taking an enormous chance, Dogville, on the other hand, behaves as a movie about a movie about a stage play. Play-within-a-play Marat/Sadebeing an exception, theatrical pieces as such generally fail to rise beyond cinema curiosities -- The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Ballad of the Sad Café -- and after glorious Globe minutes even Henry V opted for Agincourt's "vasty fields of France" movie-ness. Admittedly inspired by Brecht and 1970s televised plays -- his General Hospital-meets-The Twilight Zone, The Kingdom was in fact a splice job from a Danish TV miniseries -- von Trier naïvely denies similarities to Thronton Wilder's 1938 play (later film, using studio-built sets) Our Town, a copy of which someone gave him during shooting and after he had written his original filmscript in Danish.
A lack of direct experience in the film's "US of A" (von Trier will not fly) does not limit the director's grasp of America any more than it did Sergio Leone's. Von Trier mentions Casablanca -- not about or truly set in that city, in any case --and the intriguing name, Rocky Mountains, where Depression-era Dogville, the first of a projected trilogy, USA -- Land of Opportunites. Differentiated from the off-camera narrational voice yet only partly Wilder's Stage Manager, young cynical idealist Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) introduces the inhabitants of his town, the streets, houses, shops and bushes of which are white-drawn on the black floor, with no walls but only doors and some few furnishings as upright props.
Granting that the result maybe "is not cinema -- 'anti-cinema,' either," von Trier is careful not to "go 'strange' in [more than] one direction," but backgrounds most frequently darked out with cameras tilted to catch the floor plan, similarly angled facial close-ups do become tiring.
Tom is restless, a winner at checkers but blocked in love and writing, at odds with his practical, retired M.D. father (Philip Baker Hall) and dissatisfied with his fellow citizens' failure of social imagination, as pettiness lurks beneath surfaces. His nightly meditation interrupted by distant gunshots followed by the appearance of elegant blonde Grace (Kidman), he hides her from the city hoodlums who pursue, offer a reward and have done away with her father and morally enslaved the woman.
At his weekly Mission House of Jeremiah lecture on moral rearmament, Tom convinces the reluctant and divided town to grant the fugitive a two-week trial period. On his urging, she will offer herself as a "gift," to work for anyone needing it. Initially rebuffed, the plan slowly promises success, as Grace makes some mistakes but seems to win favor with her modest but perceptive character.
Among her early converts are blind Jack McKay and shop owner Ma Ginger (wonderful, welcome performances by Ben Gazzara and Lauren Bacall), but things sour after the Fourth of July picnic. Symbolic porcelain figurines will be broken, money disappear, Grace be "enslaved" again and taken sexual advantage of, as life turns violently ugly. Love is tested and found wanting, police are corrupted, the gangsters come back.
The conscious staginess, the voiced narrator and Tom as guide, the deliberate unidiomatic speech and lack of non-human backdrops, allow for concentration on the emotions of individual and group. Occurring in Colorado and in the 1930s, the tale ripples outward. But such stylized technique makes great demands on cast and audience alike. Because Dogville emerges as even more audacious than Michael and Mark Polish's trilogy finale Northfork, I'll be surprised if this daring film finds its audience.
(Released by Lions Gate and rated "R" for violence and sexual content.)