Didn’t anyone tell Nicole Kidman you don’t solidify your star power by starring in a three-hour art film for Danish loose cannon Lars von Trier? No, thank the cinema gods, which is why Kidman gives the most emotionally bruising performance of her career in Dogville, a movie that never met a cliche it didn’t stomp on. Shot on a soundstage in Copenhagen with no sets, just chalk marks to indicate the houses in a Rocky Mountain town during the Depression, the film sounds like the circle of hell reserved for gluttons for pretentious punishment.
And for a while, it is. There are times you want to get medieval on the ass of the writer, director and camera operator. They’re all von Trier, and all of his movies, including the acclaimed Breaking the Waves, with Emily Watson, and Dancer in the Dark, with Bjork, have a knack for setting nerves on end. Dogville is no exception. The film is a crushing critique of capitalist America, a country unvisited by von Trier, who is so phobic about flying that he has never set foot anywhere he can’t drive to in his camper. But one fact is unassailable: Von Trier is a genuine talent. Despite the stagy set, his camera moves with a fluid elegance no computer could match. Even actors who claim he drives them crazy compete to work with him. In small roles in Dogville, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Ben Gazzara, Chloé Sevigny, Patricia Clarkson and Stellan Skarsgaard each make distinct, devastating impressions.
Kidman takes pride of place as Grace. She enters the film to the sound of gunfire, pursued by gangsters and the police. Grace is looking for a safe haven in this small mountain town. She meets Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), a writer attracted by her beauty and her weakness. It’s Tom — Bettany’s twisted complexity anchors the film — who pleads her case at a town meeting. The “good, honest folk of Dogville” (the words are spoken with caustic irony by narrator John Hurt) agree to hide her in exchange for Grace doing chores. When wanted posters appear offering a reward, the ante is raised on Grace’s duties until she’s yoked like a slave in a dog collar and serving as the town’s unpaid prostitute.P>on Trier is unsparing in his critique of capitalism. Drama majors out there will know that von Trier is using alienation techniques popularized by Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who sought to break the illusion that comes with developing feelings for a character. Brecht wanted audiences to think, to stay detached and uncoddled.
On the last part of Dogville, von Trier pulls off a daring stunt that forces us to detach from Grace. It’s a scene of shocking gravity, and Kidman is up to the challenge, ending the film in a blaze of brutal glory. For all the plot detours and dead spots, this is strong, stinging filmmaking. Von Trier, light years from the formula doggerel at the multiplex, delivers something rare these days: a film of ideas.