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page created: 8/19/04

2003 (2004) - Lions Gate

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs


Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/C-

Specs and Features

177 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, keep case packaging, single-sided, single-layered, audio commentary with director Lars Von Trier and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle, theatrical trailer, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (20 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Very few filmmakers, past or present, are as gleefully (or perhaps stubbornly) iconoclastic as Lars Von Trier. Robert Altman, Spike Jonze, and David Lynch are all major Hollywood sellouts compared to Von Trier. Who else but Von Trier would have made one of the most emotional films about faith in the past decade, one that happens to focus on a woman having sex with strangers at the behest of her paralyzed husband? Who else would have made a movie combining raw, handheld realism with splashy Hollywood-style musical production numbers performed by that least Hollywood of singers, Bjork? And who else would have broken virtually every rule of conventional filmmaking to make his latest project, Dogville?

Von Trier is no stranger to rule breaking, of course. He was one of the founders of the controversial cinematic vow of chastity known as Dogme 95. The surprisingly strict (and somewhat ludicrous) rules of Dogme 95 probably insured that the experiment was doomed to failure from the beginning. Still, a number of films were produced under the Dogme 95 banner, some good (including Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration and Von Trier's own The Idiots), some considerably less so (such as Mifune and the excruciating The King Is Alive). Dogville does not play by the Dogme 95 rules. Truth be told, it doesn't abide by any rules of filmmaking, conventional or unconventional.

The first thing to get out of the way with Dogville is the way in which the story is told. Dogville itself is a tiny, isolated town somewhere up in the Rocky Mountains. But while the story is set there, the film itself is set entirely on a soundstage with the streets and buildings of Dogville represented by outlines on the floor. The homes have no walls or doors. Changes in the weather or the time of day are represented primarily by shifts of light. The most obvious analogy to this representational style is Thornton Wilder's play Our Town. Into this sleepy town where nothing ever happens comes Grace (Nicole Kidman), a woman on the run from gangsters for reasons unknown. Grace is rescued by Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), a writer who never really writes much of anything who convinces Grace that Dogville is a perfect hiding place as long as everyone in town agrees to conceal her presence. Reluctantly, the townsfolk allow her to stay for a two-week trial period. To win them over so they'll allow her to stay permanently, Tom suggests that Grace go from house to house and offer her services for anything that needs doing. One by one, the people of Dogville grow to accept Grace. But it doesn't take long before that acceptance turns ugly.

With a running time of nearly three hours and its avant garde style, to say Dogville is a challenging film would be a gross understatement. Regarding the style, I suspect that particular hurdle is easier to clear if you see the film in a theatre. There, you have the formality and ritual inherent in going to see a performance. You're in a strange room with other audience members sitting in front of a proscenium. I'm sure it would not take long for the screen to become a stage and you would simply accept the reality of Dogville as you would if you were seeing a stage play. In the familiar environment of your own home, it may take longer to make that mental jump. And if that's the case, it will take even longer for you to become involved in the story. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if many of the people who simply rent Dogville because of Nicole Kidman's presence shut it off after the first half hour.

If you can stay with it, Dogville does become an engrossing, thought-provoking film. If I'm not as enthusiastic about it as I am over Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark, it's simply because those two films are more immediately emotional in their impact. Dogville is more an intellectual experiment or puzzle than anything else and it really should be seen more than once before any conclusions are drawn about it. I consider Breaking the Waves to be one of the ten best films of the 1990s but I literally could not bring myself to watch it again for a year or two afterward. It's an emotionally draining journey and I simply couldn't go through it again anytime soon. On the other hand, I'm looking forward to watching Dogville again. The performances by the large cast (which also includes Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Philip Baker Hall, James Caan and Von Trier semi-regular Stellan Skarsgård) are uniformly excellent but Kidman is a particular standout. She becomes a more interesting performer with every risky role she takes and few have shown her as raw and open as this one. If there's a flaw in the story, it's that if you're at all familiar with the kind of hell Von Trier puts his leading ladies through in films like Breaking the Waves, you'll have no trouble figuring out where Grace's story is headed. That doesn't mean the story isn't worth telling. It simply means that, for me anyway, this is not one of those three-hour movies that doesn't seem like it's three hours long.

Dogville also provoked controversy from its first screening at Cannes due to its perceived anti-American theme, underscored by the end credits montage of photos set to David Bowie's "Young Americans". I was surprised that a large number of American critics bashed the notoriously travel-phobic Von Trier for this, pointing out that he's never even visited the country he seems to have such contempt for. As far as I'm concerned, that argument is a non-starter. After all, most of us have never set foot in Iraq but that doesn't stop us from having some pretty strong opinions about what they should do with their country. Von Trier certainly has every right in the world to love, hate, or feel utter indifference toward America and make whatever movie he wants to make. Do I think Dogville harbors anti-American sentiment? Yeah, absolutely. Von Trier is clearly making broader points about America and Americans with Dogville and the picture he paints isn't exactly flattering. I don't agree with him necessarily but I certainly can't discount his or any European's perception of us. If you think that perception is incorrect, then please help change it but don't say that Von Trier's film should go unseen.

And speaking of seeing the film, Lions Gate's DVD arrives with good news and bad. First the good. The technical presentation of the movie is top-notch. Shot on high-def digital video, Dogville looks spectacular on disc. This is a great transfer that highlights a surprisingly beautiful visual palette. You might not necessarily expect a film that was shot on a soundstage with stark, minimalist sets to be particularly good-looking but Dogville is a gorgeous film from top to bottom. The audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital and will not give your surrounds much of a workout. Not too much of a surprise that most of the sound is front and center but the dialogue is clear and well balanced and in a case like this, that's all that really matters.

Now the bad news. This should have been a two-disc set. It's not. Here's some of what you won't find on this DVD. An hour-long documentary entitled Dogville Confessions, which, from what I've heard, sounds like one of the great behind-the-scenes docs of recent memory. There was at least one press conference at Cannes featuring Von Trier and Kidman that made the news last year. There are interviews with the cast and crew, there's test footage and featurettes on the visual effects, all of which is available to anybody who owns a region-free DVD player. But if you don't, like me, you're out of luck. One thing Dogville is not is a typical movie. Love it or hate it, I believe that anybody who's interested in movies will come away from it wanting to know more about the how's and why's behind its creation. For the most part, you won't find it here.

That's too bad but I can't review what isn't there. So what exactly is on the disc? A trailer. And a chummy, subdued audio commentary by Von Trier and director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle. It's not a bad commentary by any means. But you know you're in trouble when they start things off by referring to the "test" they just finished watching. They make a few comparisons between the test footage and the finished film and I'll just bet those comparisons are extremely interesting... if you have any idea what the test footage is like. With all the additional background material that's out there, this commentary may add an extra layer on top. But if this is your only insight into the making of Dogville, you'll get frustrated sooner rather than later.

Dogville is the first in a planned trilogy of films following Grace. Bryce Dallas Howard (who recently made her film debut in The Village) takes over the role from Kidman for part two, Manderlay, due out next year. I don't know much about it other than it will be similar to but completely different than Dogville and will likely be even more inflammatory as it supposedly deals with slavery. It's been argued that the great directors make the same films over and over, dealing with the same obsessions and themes from different angles. If that's the case, Lars Von Trier is rapidly building a body of work that might just rank him among the great filmmakers. Wherever he decides to go next, it's almost certain to be a trip worth taking.

Adam Jahnke

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