Dogville (tbc)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner24/10/2003

Five out of Five stars
Running time: 178 mins

Powerful, moving, original, provocative drama, brilliantly directed by Lars Von Trier and featuring a terrific ensemble cast.

Dogville is the latest film by bonkers Danish director Lars Von Trier – it sharply divided both critics and audiences at this year’s Cannes film festival, where it was accused of being ‘anti-American’, and it looks certain to do the same here.

Von Trier drew criticism for his depiction of an American town in Dancer in the Dark (the director has never set foot in the States) and Dogville’s brilliant central nnovation seems to have been inspired by that criticism – though the film is set in a small town in the Rocky Mountains, the entire thing is filmed on a studio sound stage, largely devoid of props and with the main street of the town and all the houses mapped out in chalk outlines. (The director has also noted that this is a deliberate nod towards Trevor Nunn’s famous RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby, which was screened on C4 in the early 1980s).

Hurt On Form

The film is told as a story in nine chapters and is wonderfully narrated by John Hurt, who does a genuinely spell-binding job. (Critics have already called his narration "the best since Welles" and it's hard not to agree). The film wouldn't be half the film it is without it.

It's set in a tiny fictional town in the Rocky Mountains, during the Depression. Paul Bettany plays Tom Edison, the town's resident dreamer and wannabe author. One day he hears gunshots; shortly afterwards he stumbles across Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious, frightened young woman. He quickly hides her from a car-load of gangsters who turn up in hot pursuit.

He then persuades the townsfolk (including Stellan Skarsgaard, Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Chloe Sevigny and - uh oh - Jeremy Davies - yes, he does that annoying thing with his hands, again) to give Grace two weeks in which to earn their trust, which she does by making herself useful at everyone's house. Then, gradually, as the chapter heading says, "Dogville bares its teeth" and the townsfolk turn against her.

Nicole Kidman is excellent and the part makes clever use of her oft-criticised 'cold, ice-queen' quality. The rest of the (frankly, mouth-watering) cast are exactly as good as you'd expect them to be, with Patricia Clarkson and Stellan Skarsgaard as the stand-outs.

Heart Stopping Sequences

There are a number of heart-stopping sequences. Firstly, the initial rape scene - Skarsgaard forces himself onto Kidman and the camera pulls back, through the invisible walls to take in the rest of the town, going about their business, oblivious; meanwhile, you can still see Skarsgaard's naked arse moving on top of Kidman in the corner of the frame.

Aside from being an extremely clever bit of fore-shadowing, it’s a stunning moment that perfectly justifies the stage set-up. Other equally impressive sequences include: Kidman’s attempted escape from the town in an apple truck (the entire thing is filmed 'through' the blanket, from a high angle, looking straight down at her lying there); and the desperately moving scene where Clarkson’s character confronts Grace for the first time.

Von Trier also makes terrific use of symbolism, packing the film with it to the point where it almost becomes a joke - it’s almost certainly intended as a dig at classic American plays such as Our Town, another obvious influence. At any rate, you can almost guarantee that future film students will spend years debating ‘the true meaning of the gooseberry bushes’.

The film paints an undeniably scathing portrait of smalltown America – if you’ve ever grown sick and tired of ‘Smalltown USA’ type movies, this is the film for you. Accusations of anti-Americanism, however, are missing the point – after all, Billy Wilder made similar points about American society in his films (e.g. Ace in the Hole), just not in so grotesque a fashion.

To sum up, Dogville is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Moreover, its three hour running time feels remarkably short. At any rate, this is unquestionably worth seeing for its brilliant direction, superb performances and its provocative, moving script, not to mention John Hurt’s Oscar worthy narration. Highly recommended.

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Dogville (tbc)
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Content updated: 20/10/2017 22:44

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