Dogville (2003) from JK and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

JK's comments in white:

Nicole Kidman.  Want to see her best performance?  Better than her big nose performance in “The Hours”?  Better than her just-stepped-out-of-the-beauty-parlor portrayal in “Cold Mountain”?  In “Dogville” she is dirty, beleaguered and trudges through a tiny 1930s town in Colorado with the underplayed confidence that’s made her one of our finest actresses. 

Lars von Trier, Danish director always on the cutting edge (“Breaking the Waves” and “Dancing in the Dark”), brings us a film that is more than Avante Garde; it is experimental film making.  Dogville is filmed entirely on a sound stage.  The entire hamlet is outlined in white on the stage floor, but we quickly get used to not seeing buildings because we’re focused on the nature of this tiny town and the people who inhabit it.  The script, written by von Trier, fits the surroundings like a glove. 

The film also stars Paul Bettany and features such actors as Ben Gazzara and Patricia Clarkson in outstanding roles, Skellar Skarsgard in his best and most challenging performance, Lauren Bacall, Blair Brown and James Caan, among others.  

Kidman’s character, Grace, is on the lam and is given sanctuary in the little town of Dogville.  But when the townsfolk realize Grace’s predicament, they grow some sharp teeth and Grace is used and abused ever increasingly until the idyllic little town becomes ugly.

Von Trier’s style is minimalist.  The result is a stirring of emotions rarely attained.  The story is insidious, the repercussions brutal. 

The film offers as many moral, psychological and philosophical issues as we care to find.  Is Dogville a thumbnail version of the U.S.?  Does power corrupt absolutely?  Is abuse of power a postulate in the nature of man?  Is kindness merely camouflage for frustration?  Where does justice lie in mankind’s obligations?

 “Dogville” has a limited release in the U.S.  To see it, find it at the local arts theater and soon, because it won’t stay long.  Be prepared to sit for almost three hours.  Nicole Kidman and ensemble are worth it.


Female - none

Male - Stellan Skarsgaard shows his bum.

 Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)'s (Scoop's) comments in yellow:

Oddly enough, I just watched this film two days ago. A few miscellaneous notes:

1. Do you remember how Les on WKRP created an imaginary office and insisted that everyone knock on, then open up, his imaginary door before talking to him? Remember Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford talking to a porcelain dog, thinking it was real? Well this is three hours of people playing Les Nessman and Gerald Ford. The houses, buildings, and rooms are indicated by chalk outlines. The dog ... well ...

2. Lars von Trier does not have what one would call a nuanced view of the world. He has a simplistic, black-and-white, Mel Gibson, Clifford Odets, kind of weltanschauung, filled with one dimensional characters, and wild exaggeration. If you go to this film, you should not expect to see real people interacting in real and complex ways. The characters are archetypes, and the presentation is from the symbolist school. (I guess the symbolic town was kind of a dead giveaway, eh?) The dialogue is not the speech of humans, but the speechifying of stage characters from an earlier day's range of theater conventions. Nothing here is supposed to be portrayed as something that could really happen. It must be seen as the sometimes wildly exaggerated extension of our basest human behavior, as presented in an extended allegory. Thus, when Joe Blow talks to John Doe, they are not Joe and John, but "the international corporate-governmental-criminal complex" speaking to "the oppressed masses". That kind of thing.

Something interesting to me is that the story takes place in the United States, although von Trier has never been to that country, so the whole presentation takes on a heavy post-modernist burden. Just as Tarantino's movies are not based on the past experiences of the world, but on the past experiences of movie reality, von Trier's picture of America is not based on anything actually resembling America, but on the country as it was portrayed by the literature and theater of the 1930s. That fact doesn't exclude it from making valid observations, but it certainly anchors the entire thing in a "fun house mirror" kind of surrealism that makes you wonder whether he realizes he is creating a symbolist work and not a work of meticulous sociology.

I've written in the past that I've often wondered how von Trier reacts to his own inept Dogme films when something goes very wrong. Does he look at a frame of a bare wall, out of focus, undersaturated, and too dark, with the speaker only partially in the frame, and think "ah, sheer genius!". When I picture von Trier, I think of him like Ed Wood in that Tim Burton film, sitting in a dark theater, his eyes aglow as he looks at his film, mouthing the words along with the actors, impressed with his own brilliance. Maybe he holds dolls representing the characters, and wiggles them when it is their turn to speak, like kids playing with action figures. His own speeches appear on screen in this movie, I suppose, in the avatar of John Hurt, who narrates the whole thing non-stop in a voice dripping with condescension.

Having said that, I'd add that Dogville is quite an achievement in many ways. It is not a Dogme film, and in fact is quite technically proficient, despite the minimalist set design. More to the point, it is filled with ideas. It is essentially a revival of the social activism that dominated much of the literature of the Great Depression. Von Trier is a worthy successor to John Steinbeck and Bertolt Brecht, as a writer who wants to use larger-than-life situations to dig deep into the sociological and psychological nature of human cruelty, greed, opportunism, exploitation, and revenge.  Of course, one must also note that, although still capable of packing a strong emotional punch in many ways, this kind of wild-eyed presentation seemed a lot more immediate to audiences when the world was filled with Hitler, Stalin, and The Great Depression.

It is quite an amazing tribute to Nicole Kidman that she manages to exist apart from this solemn polemic, choosing to try to make her character as subtle as she can under the outrageous circumstances. (How outrageous? Well, she's raped constantly, and at one point she walks around with a weight chained to her, ala Homer Simpson among the Stonecutters). In the past couple of years, I have come to an appreciation of her gifts as an actress. It seems that her painful split from Cruise brought a new range of emotions closer to the surface, and she has done her best work since their break-up. She has now flown to the lofty perch where she sits as both a great box office magnet and a great actress. That is a place which few in film history have occupied. And, of course, she achieves the Triple Crown, because she is obviously a great beauty as well. If you think that combination is nothing special, try to name another actress who has all three. Even if you include males in the mix, I am hard-pressed to name another beyond Johnny Depp, and even Depp only recently achieved any major box-office success. Furthermore, Depp's box office appeal may be tenuous, while Kidman's marquee appeal is fully certified by a string of films.

As for von Trier, well, as JK pointed out above, you may love him or hate him, but he's always on the cutting edge, and his works are always art. They may not always be good art, but they are art. He's not in it for the big bucks, but for the examination and expression of ideas, right or wrong. He's filled with passion, he takes chances, he innovates, he's completely fearless.

Since I said those nice things about him, I have to add that can't imagine why you would want to see this movie. I'm glad I did my duty and watched it, just so I can click it off my "to-do" list, but I surely didn't enjoy it in any way.

Philip French of The Guardian summed it up Dogville best: "...ludicrous, arrogant, pretentious and naïve. But... also boldly conceived, genuinely risky and disturbing". Von Trier is all of those things, and more. Like his characters, he is larger than life, or maybe just apart from it.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus two and a half stars. James Berardinelli 3/4, Roger Ebert 2/4.

  • British consensus: three stars. Mail 4/10, Telegraph 8/10, Independent 8/10, Guardian 6/10, The Times 6/10, Sun 9/10, Express 8/10, BBC 4/5.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.4/10. (Ludicrous. You can find ten films in the thirties which did this kind of thing better.)
  • It grossed about a million dollars in the USA, about nine million overseas.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+, I guess. It really doesn't have any genre, so the C+ means "highly arty and challenging, but  obviously not a mainstream entertainment, and I can't think of any reason why you would want to see it."

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