Dogville


Directed by: Lars Von Trier
Written by:Lars Von Trier
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgard, Chloe Sevigny, Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Bacall, Jeremy Davies, Philip Baker Hall, John Hurt
Released: December 26, 2003
Grade: A

Nicole Kidman has recently been in Australia to plug the already heavily promoted Cold Mountain but you may not know that there’s another Kidman film now playing in selected theatres.  Dogville has been written and directed by the Denmark’s Lars Von Trier – a man who is anything but conventional.  He has been making films in his own country since the 70s but it wasn’t until 1996 when I saw my first Von Trier film, Breaking The Waves, at the Brisbane International Film Festival.  The only other film of his you are likely to know is 2000’s Dancer In The Dark (starring Bjork) but I’ll presume you haven’t seen that either.

Dogville premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is the story of a woman named Grace (played by Kidman).  The mob is after her and she has escaped into the mountains and comes across the very small town of Dogville where there are only 15 adult residents.  It is Tom (Bettany) who first meets her and he puts his argument to the town that she should be allowed to stay.  They are reluctant to believe her story and don’t want any trouble brought to their community but they allow her to stay on a trial basis.

Helping the townsfolk out with their businesses and chores, Grace starts fitting in.  Even when the mob offers a substantial reward for her capture, they keep her presence a closely guarded secret.  Things change though after time and Grace is soon taken for granted.  There is a realisation amongst those in the town that she is theirs for the taking.  They can make work her like a slave and take advantage of her sexually because she has nowhere else to turn.  Grace, so willing for their help, now wants anything but.

It’s a very interesting story where the power shifts between its characters.  It’s difficult to predict where it all may end and I thoroughly enjoyed the surprises contained within the ending.  Nicole Kidman is beautifully sedated in her portrayal of Grace and the remaining cast do a great job in adding intrigue to their characters.  Just who can be trusted?

When you look at the above analysis, you’d think this is a rather conventional film which would be showing at most cinemas across the country.  Well there are some details regarding the production which I should elaborate on.  Firstly, there are no sets.  It is filmed completely on a sound stage and apart from a few chairs and tables, there’s nothing there.  A character will open a door and you hear the sound effect of a door opening but you just don’t see the door.  You just have to imagine the walls of the houses, the bushes in the gardens and even the view of the surrounding area.  During the day, the lights above the set are turned up and to represent the night, they are dimmed.   I can’t say I’ve seen a film made quite this way before.

Secondly, the film is put together like a book.  It is heavily narrated (by John Hurt) and is split into a prologue and nine chapters.  Before each chapter begins, we are given a brief description of what is about to happen.  You’d think this would spoil the tension but it does not.  It even adds to the excitement in places because you know something important is about to happen.  On a side note, the chapters also make it easy to gauge how long there is to go in the film so there’s no need to squint at your watch in the darkness.

Dogville is a strange experiment in filmmaking and as evident from the reactions on SBS’s The Movie Show, it will divide audiences.  Margaret Pomeranz described the film as one “you discuss standing on the footpath afterwards” in giving in five stars.  Alternatively, David Stratton said his “junior school production of Willow Pattern Plate was more exciting” and thought only one star was a worthy score.  I’ll take Margaret’s side here and like Lars Von Trier’s other films, I applaud him for taking a chance and giving us something interesting to watch.  Do see it.