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Can't Fault Her For Trier-Ing: Nicole Kidman suffers for her art in 'Dogville.'

Dancer in the Bark

Attacking an elephant with a peashooter, Lars von Trier takes on America in 'Dogville'

By Richard von Busack

Lars von Trier reaches a watershed: Dogville is his first film in years without the Dogme certificate; and it features a genuine movie star, Nicole Kidman. Dancer in the Dark, von Trier's last release, inspired a mix of praise and fury. I doubt that we'll see the same outpouring of emotion over this cold, formal exercise. Acted on an almost bare stage with stenciled outline, Dogville looks like a project still on the drawing board. The film is a throwback to the era of early television, when they use to stage Hamlet against an Elsinore made out of packing crates.

The one-street town of Dogville, the relic of a played-out mine, sits on a ledge far away in the Rocky Mountains. Dogville consists of one nondenominational church, one store and a series of wall-less two-room shacks. A pantomime mine shaft occupies the end of town. In a high shot, with the camera dangling downward from the rafters, we see the characters in this "city" as if we were looking at a game board.

John Hurt narrates, reciting the nine chapters of the story. His dry drawl ensures that the tale will be even more remote. Baroque music floats in the background. The effect is Masterpiece Theater with a host who persists in heavily ironic summings-up and retellings over the action. After three hours, von Trier's conceit seems particularly precious. It could only be perfectly realized if it were played in a theater in which the word "audience" was stenciled in white paint on every empty chair.

Again, as in Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves, von Trier focuses on how female goodness is crushed, inch by inch. The difference here is that the crushed woman takes revenge. A stranger turns up in Dogville--a young woman named Grace (Kidman). She is discovered by the town's resident philosopher, Thomas Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), who decides to protect her from the gangsters who are looking for her.

Edison suggests that Grace can make herself a home in this small town, if she volunteers to work for the people there. The townspeople all have small tasks they would like to have performed. Liz Henson (Chloë Sevigny) enlists Grace's help with her family's business of disguising ordinary cut glass as crystal. Cleo King's Olivia the maid needs help with her crippled daughter. Grace reads for Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara), a blind man who pretends he's not blind. Schoolmarm Vera (Patricia Clarkson) needs help with her children.

A shy romance grows between Grace and Tom, but then a policeman turns up with wanted posters for Grace. The law scares the citizens, and they begin to extract more work from Grace. Tom--an impotent logic-cruncher--tries to scheme a way to protect her, but his wits fail him. What begins as a self-help story turns into an ordeal, and Grace is extorted into prostitution and eventually forced to wear a bell, like a leper, as she walks the streets.

The citizens of Dogville are docile to power and beastly to strangers. They're interested only in food, money and the sacredness of the perimeter. The director has said that the film is meant to "tease" America by presenting the nation as a village full of greedy, frightened, pious people, with the character of snarling dogs. Von Trier's perceptions about the United States rise no higher than the level of this comment: "I learned when I was very small that if you are strong, you have to be just and good, and that's not something you see in America at all." That sounds like what an 11-year-old would say. Childlike injured innocence is unbecoming in an artist, who, like von Trier, is past 45.

Nobody exposes American greed and malice like an American (TV's South Park, also set in the inhospitable Rockies, displays far more teeth). Grace gets some ugly toy figurines as the only ornaments in her shack; they sit on a shelf, Glass Menagerie style. You can surmise that one of the oafish townspeople will destroy these fragile little figures. Of course it happens. The bully observes, "I believe that smashing them is less a crime than making them." That line soothes any guilt a critic of Dogville might feel.

Dogville (R; 177 min.), directed and written by Lars von Trier, photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle and starring Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany, opens Friday at the Del Mar in Santa Cruz.

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From the April 14-21, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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