Monday, May 17, 2004

Here is David Edelstein's review of Lars Von Trier's crazy parable Dogville
Welcome to the Dollhouse - Lars von Trier's inhuman Dogville. By David Edelstein

After watching the stupendous Breaking the Waves and the wretched Dancer in the Dark, I reached a conclusion about the maverick Lars Von Trier. His movies are not art or even entertainment but cold calculated experiments using the audience as a guienea-pig. Both Breaking the Waves and Dancer were designed to see if an audience could be roused to emotion based on a story that was not only blatantly manipulative not to mention implausible but also astonishingly sadistic. Emily Watson's brave performance in Waves somehow managed to side-step the sadism and the movie, even today, is moving. Von Trier went too far in Dancer in the Dark, which had me closing my eyes with dread with every step that Bjork's Selma took but which also had me hating the director for his sneering sadism. His latest movie Dogville however is different.

While both Waves and Dancer seemed calculated to rouse emotions, Von Trier goes out of his way to drain Dogville of anything even remotely in the vicinity of emotion. For a start, the movie takes place on a huge sound-stage with a minimum of props (the actors even mime the opening and closing of doors, the houses are marked with chalk). However the most important step is that all the characters here, even the heroine herself, are reduced to types, who exist merely to move the story to it's (il)logical conclusion. Now this is Tony Kushner territory, where everything is subsumed to ideology and the characters merely function as cogs in the intellectual machinery. Yet Kushner's plays are so thought-provoking that his characters manage to stand out by themselves. Von Trier, on the other hand, has nothing to offer but his misanthropy which somehow makes Dogville engrossing yet strangely empty. The casting of Nicole Kidman as the protagonist Grace is another case in point. Kidman is a great actress but what probably makes her perfect for the movie (and probably the main reason why she was cast) is how distanced she manages to be from the happenings around her. In the film's latter half, Grace becomes the focal point for all the men in Dogville who start using her for their sexual gratification. Yet even when she is undergoing the most horrible humiliations (which include a dog-collar around her neck), Kidman's Grace never looks less than elegant. This is the final step, that effectively sterilizes the movie and anesthetizes the audience. Don't expect to shed any tears during Dogville.

Yet with Von Trier, one never really knows. I would have called Dogville a hateful movie if I had even the remotest inkling whether the movie is a genuine statement of Von Trier's own feelings. Yet I also had the feeling as I was watching the movie that it was all another one of Von Trier's ghastly joke. I even imagined the director smirking in private over all the hyper-ventilating critics who found his anti-Americanism offensive. (And it would be, if only one knew whether the man was serious!). Dogville, I concluded, is another experiment: to see whether a movie, drained of all emotions could still manage to arouse feelings.

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