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In his latest assault on audience sensibilities, Danish maverick Lars Von Trier follows up his excruciatingly effective Dancer in the Dark (2000) with another mystifying attempt at explaining the United States of America from his odd and often deviant point-of-view. Nicole Kidman stars as Grace, a mysterious young woman passing through the dead-end (literally) Colorado mountain town of Dogville as she flees from some secret, and possibly criminal, past. Her arrival in the tiny, depression-era town is fortuitous for Tom Edison (no apparent relation to the historical figure of the same name; played by Paul Bettany), a shiftless and tiresome intellectual looking for a new, progressive social experiment to which he can subject the local townspeople. Tom cajoles the locals into harboring Grace for a two-week trial period, in exchange for her light servitude, after which, if they come to like her, she will be allowed to stay and live in the town and will not be turned in to the police. Polite, comely, and — despite her apparent affluence — useful, Grace gamely wins the collective heart of Dogville and settles in, at which point those she assists begin to pay her small wages for her work. However, as fans of Von Trier know, events simply may not continue on such a pleasant course, and, surely enough, Dogville becomes yet another opus in his repertoire of psychological (and, as usual, actual) sado-masochism. Accustomed to Grace's complimentary services, the strapped townsfolk take the first excuse to increase her labor and cut her wages, reducing her to little more than a community slave. As she becomes further dehumanized by her subjugated role, the local men come to expect sexual services as well. Grace — who pities the "simple" people of Dogville — doesn't have the heart or will to resist, and Tom — who professes to love her — is more preoccupied with working out the kinks in his social project (and getting in her pants) than interceding in her favor. In each case, their sense of elitism renders them impotent. When Grace finally does attempt to escape the town, everything gets worse, and… let's just say the ending, which may be Von Trier's attempt at recompense for Dancer in the Dark's enraging sense of false martyrdom, is controversial (which Von Trier ending isn't?).

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Clinging to his experimental street cred (was it ever in doubt?), Von Trier daringly films the movie on a bare-bones soundstage, with the wall-less sets outlined simply by blueprints drawn on the floor, and when the actors open and close the imagined doors, they employ pantomime augmented by Foley sounds. However, this is more than a stylish conceit; it's an alarmingly effective move, illustrating the intimacy and invasiveness of the eponymous small town. Like all other movies from this compelling provocateur, Dogville is maddening, puzzling, bracing, and fascinating. Von Trier makes some feeble attempts at localizing the problems in Dogville as somehow typically American in nature. The end-titles slideshow of U.S. poverty from the Great Depression to the present day, while David Bowie sings "Young Americans," is one giveaway; another is the townsfolk singing "God Bless America" right before making Grace's citizenry a living hell; another is this quote from Von Trier's commentary:

"To me it's an American film. It shows America. And I know that the people in this story could be anywhere in the world…. But to me, this is my knowledge, which is a good knowledge, from Steinbeck and good films that I've seen."

Despite such "good knowledge" of the United States (the auteur admitted on the commentary to Dancer in the Dark that he had never been to America; he has a fear of airplanes, and his ideas about the country are based almost solely on cinema and literature), the ideas critiqued in Dogville are distinctly European, from the extremes of Marxist collectivism to distinctly German or Soviet fascism (Von Trier also admits in his commentary, "Actually, as I see it now, it's very European.") with only a flaccid attempt to frame Grace's situation in terms of capitalism. If anything, Dogville may expose the pitfalls of American communities fetishizing European ideals more than it indicts actual U.S. domestic policies. A climactic scene between James Caan (as a gangster) and the hunted Grace clumsily tries to explain Von Trier's idea verbally, but it's the least compelling scene in the film, and the argument quickly devolves from boring to incoherent. Regardless of Von Trier's muddled and slapdash motivating politics — or his tendency to undercut his meaning with mitigating dramatic circumstances — anyone with the patience to sit through his unusual three-hour film (the first part to a planned trilogy of American stories, with the next, Manderlay, to address Southern slavery) will no doubt find themselves engaged not only by its strange polemic, but also by Von Trier's sly humor and outrageous vision, and maybe even its spare beauty. The performances are excellent, especially Kidman, who weathers great abuse with suffering ease, but also Bettany, who manages some charm despite Tom's loathsome, parasitic worthlessness. Also in the cast as townsfolk are Stellan Skarsgard, Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, Jeremy Davies, Jean Marc-Barr, Blair Brown, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazarra, Philip Baker Hall, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, and Chloe Sevigny; also with Udo Kier and narration by John Hurt. Lions Gate presents Dogville in a beautiful anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of Anthony Dod Mantle's excellent photography and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. This disc includes a commentary by Von Trier and Dod Mantle, but most of the talk is technical and behind-the-scenes, with very little discussion of the provocative content. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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