A visionary's nightmare on Elm Street

Chloë Sevigny as Liz Hensen in Dogville
A visionary's nightmare on Elm Street

By Gregg Barrios

The first part of an American trilogy makes a masterful beginning

Dogville isn't Kill Bill, Vol. 2, but Nicole Kidman could certainly show Uma Thurman a thing or two about the correct way of exacting vengeance.

No one goes to a von Trier film for mindless pap or a feel-good ending. Dogville is no exception. Like all engaging works of art, you may want to walk out, shout at the screen, applaud, pick a fight, or return to confront its perplexity anew. It is that audacious and challenging.

Von Trier shot this masterful three-hour film in high-definition video as a theater piece. Replete with chalk markings and labels for missing props, this stripped-down universe is laid bare on a sound stage not unlike Thornton Wilder's Our Town. A whimsical narrator informs us that, though Dogville has no Main Street, it does have an Elm Street but no elm trees.

Von Trier's film style from the early TV film Medea to the recent Kingdom Hospital, adapted by Stephen King for American television, is quite eclectic. This however doesn't extend to his unswerving obsession of women on the verge: consider Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves or Björk in Dancer in the Dark.

Director Lars von Trier has found his muse in Nicole Kidman
In gathering a stellar ensemble cast for Dogville, von Trier has found his muse in Nicole Kidman, who is mesmerizing from first frame to last. As the fugitive Grace, she sneaks into the Depression-era mining town and is taken under the wing of young Tom, a budding writer - and later lover - who arranges for her to find work in the self-sufficient town. The townsfolk grow to like Grace but turn against her when a wanted poster reveals she is on the lam for bank robbery.

The Dogvillians make her work longer hours and worse. Her via crucis includes beatings, multiple rapes, and other atrocities. At times, von Trier seems to be aping his earlier compatriot Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. There are also large theatrical helpings from Bertolt Brecht's Pirate Jenny and Mother Courage.

The most personal references are films that define America to the world: Grapes of Wrath, Fury, Public Enemy, Little Caesar, It's a Wonderful Life. (The most obscure is Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, with a script by Thornton Wilder in which a fugitive is welcomed into a small town community but later turns out to be a serial killer.)


Dir. & writ. Lars von Trier; feat. Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård, James Caan, Chloë Sevigny, Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, Blair Brown, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Harriet Andersson, John Hurt (R)

Since von Trier has never traveled to these United States, some critics have stupidly labeled the director and Dogville as anti-American. "I know more about America than the Americans did about Morocco when they made Casablanca," von Trier recently said. "They never went there either. Humphrey Bogart never set foot in the town."

For von Trier fans, there is good news. Dogville is the first part of an American trilogy. Mandalay will take us deeper into the South. Three actresses will portray Grace, and the amazing Lauren Bacall returns. But for now, Dogville beckons to be pondered and relished. •

By Gregg Barrios