Dogville (15)

Lars Von Trier (177 mins)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara

To those who welcome a Lars von Trier film with the same enthusiasm as root canal work, his latest, Dogville, will present an especially unappealing prospect. Set in a Depression-era mining town in the Rocky Mountains, the film is actually located on a stage with chalk lines to mark out the houses and a few paltry props - a bed, a chair, a table - to break up the space. The actors mime opening doors as they would in am-dram and a voice-over (by John Hurt) spoon-feeds us the story: "This is the sad tale of the town of Dogville..." If such artificiality were not warning enough, the film lasts just shy of three hours. All things considered, it might not be your idea of a fun night out. It certainly wasn't mine.

Von Trier is often called a "provocateur", and if the ability to rile were the sole requirement of film-making he would rank among the greats. Experience of his recent work - Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark - suggests he has an instinct for getting up people's noses but remains clueless (or perhaps careless) about pleasing the eye or the ear. (Björk's overwrought wailing was a low-point of Dancer - one of many.) In this new film, however, his provocations play rather more compellingly. It unfolds with fable-like simplicity: a beautiful, mysterious woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman) fetches up in Dogville, on the run from a city gangster and his fleet of sinister black Packards. An earnest young fellow, Tom (Paul Bettany) implores the suspicious townsfolk to protect the newcomer, and eventually her meekness and work ethic persuade them to let her stay.

One's suspicions of the film begin to thaw, too. Despite its staginess, despite its Brechtian spirit of artifice, the story of the enigmatic fugitive begins to grip. At first I attributed this to the commitment of its top-drawer cast - Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny, Ben Gazzara, Stellan Skarsgard - whose shifting responses to Grace are caught by the inquisitive probing of a hand-held camera. Kidman, slightly reprising her role in the disappointing Cold Mountain, here seems far more convincing as the girl with "alabaster hands" who plays a love duet with Bettany that is shy but never coy. Yet the film operates on something more than good acting. It's to do with Von Trier's artful mirroring of spiritual condition in physical metaphor. The austere, stripped-down set, which seemed mere affectation, is really a foreshadowing of the way Von Trier intends to strip the townsfolk of their social decorums and reveal their true animal selves. They turn out to be not the homely souls of an American pastoral but rapacious abusers of innocence.

It is characteristic of Von Trier's misanthropy that it goes hand-in-hand with a wilful desire to appal. When it emerges that the police are searching for Grace, the townspeople agree to continue sheltering her on the proviso that she accept double the workload for half her already pitiful pay. Opinion slowly hardens against her. Even the kid (Miles Purinton) who made himself her pet eventually bares his teeth. She is reduced to being the town's skivvy, then its slave, and finally an object of sexual gratification among its menfolk.

At first their exploitation seems not only vile but unrealistic. Isn't it more likely that the town would ostracise her, or hand her over to the police, rather than work her to the bone? But this would be to ignore the veiled criticism of America, once the country that prided itself on being a refuge to the tired and poor but more recently the scourge of immigrants and aliens.

Von Trier doesn't make this accusation explicit, though his closing photo-montage of the rural American underclass might raise the temperature of the debate. Whether intended or not, the film gathers about it an allegorical power - this tale of abuse and corruption could be happening anywhere, at any time.

Dogville is also of a piece with Von Trier's three previous films, wherein a female protagonist is unjustly victimised for her supposed wrongdoing. Just as escalating cruelties were heaped on poor Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, so Kidman is subjected to exorbitant humiliations that fall not far short of sadism. If reports from the set are to be believed, the director rather thrives on a Hitchcock-like antagonism with his leading ladies - it is probably the only time in her career that Kidman will be fitted with an iron collar and chain.

This interest in female persecution might be just another poison arrow in Von Trier's quiver, though in this case it leads to one of the few moments of dramatic weakness. Tom, Grace's one staunch ally, is a would-be writer and a keen lecturer on "acceptance" in the community, yet he stands by while she runs the gauntlet of the town's savagery. The decision he makes with regard to her fate is absolutely inconsistent with everything we know of him.

In the end, Von Trier's movie feels like a rebuke not just to the myth of American fraternity - the dark flipside of Thornton Wilder's Our Town - but to the very notion of common humanity. When Grace, in a moment of utter weariness, says, "I want to make this world a little better", we believe her, but the method she adopts to make it so supplies the film with a shocking twist. The test of stoicism that one of the Dogville matrons had goadingly visited upon her is returned with terrible interest. A cameo by James Caan inevitably suggests the triumph of a certain type of American "businessman", so that even the moral retribution of the finale feels sullied: a rat killing a rat.

Such bleakness is what we've come to expect of Lars von Trier, but the style is something new, and very welcome.

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