Ok, review number three - in between tales of woe!
Actually, as social commentary goes, it doesn't get more bleak than Lars Von Trier.........maybe I should pitch him a screenplay based on my horrific experiences of robbery and treachery?
Should be right up his alley.......
Director & Writer: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, John Hurt (Narrator).
Though Lars Von Trier once again courts controversy and dances with various media interruptions, his movie should truly speak for itself (as ‘Dancer in the Dark’ eventually did) without reference to headlines or personalities. For three hours I was entranced, strangled and released in the amazing world he created using chalk and sound – this film truly has to be seen to understand the magnitude of what he has undertaken and appreciate the skill with which his ideas are presented. A single sound stage contains all the trials and tribulations of the cast in question, chalk outlines denote houses and extras (Moses the dog being a notable example), and characters mime the opening of invisible doors to the appropriate noise track. Cars and people appear and disappear over the edge – the outside world being literally anything beyond the stretch of stage, giving the not-unintentional picture that Dogville is a world apart.
It is beyond the power of words to describe how this looks and feels, but certain scenes embody the flavour of what Lars Von Trier is trying to achieve much better than others. The moment, for instance, when Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace, opens the curtains of a blind mans darkened room to show the man that he truly cannot see is particularly poignant. He has lived in the town for years, convinced that he has kept his blindness from his neighbours, and Grace pulls down his façade in a rare moment of clarity and anger at the town’s apathy (and barely concealed hypocrisy). This moment is allowed peace under Von Trier’s direction, and he lets the beautiful red and gold light explode over Grace’s face as her expression alone shows us that she sees what we and the blind man cannot – a beautiful deep canyon and a fabulous sunset.
The lighting plays the strongest part in giving focus and depth to the simple sets, and because of this attention is drawn to each of the players in subtle ways. There are moments of such emotional and impressive content that it is truly a wonder that all is being achieved by a single sound stage with a non-theatre cast (for the majority). When Grace has been shackled and chained after suffering rape and pillage by the townspeople, has spoken out against them (in her soft and non-accusatory way) at their town meeting, and now retired to her bed where she has fended off the loving, though insistent, attentions of the town moralist, Tom (Paul Bettany), the lighting almost becomes a character in itself. Tom leaves her room and a soft light shows Grace in the foreground as she curls up as best she can on her bed, the glow adding to the vulnerability and innocence of her character. In the centre-to-back-ground the townsfolk still sit in the chalk outlined mission-house, assessing the information that Grace has given them. Their indecision and immobility is lit lowly and their presence merely emphasised as a much-repeated event – one that takes place while others of more import are happening. Tom has a light to follow his soulful journey to the rear of the stage, and as he moves to the background (ambling suggestively) the area denoting his home is suddenly illuminated. Three settings lit differently allow the viewer to focus on each separately – Grace’s weariness and defeat, the towns agitation and attempt to brush off what has been said, and in the background Tom’s indignation and impotence (quickly changed to furtiveness and action), without taking away from the ensemble tableau.
The script does not quite do enough justice to the fantastical ideas of stage Lars Von Trier had envisaged and, for the most part, followed through on for this production. The lines are spoken with fervour, but contain little passion in their wording, so by times the conversations are nonsensical to the point of incoherence. However, that said, because the movie was written scene-for-scene by Von Trier, his enigmatic direction brings forth performances that make words unnecessary, and so nullifies any qualms one may harbour about where the characters speeches originate or, indeed, their destination.
Minor script faults aside, the make-up of the town and the expressions used by the indigenous people as opposed to Grace, who seems blown in from a different time, recall something older and primal – as though Cain and Able could both have fought and died on this very mountain. These people are truly biblical, hacking a living from the rough terrain, and trying to hold on to things that represent to them their humanity and nature – moral lectures, gooseberry pie, checkers, intellectualism, the beauty of apples, the sophist theories – but ultimately proving that the fight is in vain, and at their base they are animals not far from their bloody origins in Genesis. Grace becomes the lamb, laid out to bear all their fears and pain – a scapegoat sent out into the desert to die with their sins on her shoulders, whilst they continue their existence, content in its mediocrity and wallowing in its lack of introspection.
At times the length of the narrative became too much. At three hours, this is a movie you must make a total commitment to from the opening scene. Towards the middle, when all your conceptions of the people of Dogville have been established and defined, it becomes almost claustrophobic as they are dashed, and you are bombarded with some truly horrible images and a frightening turn to the story. The momentum is carried through in almost Lynchian undertones – something about the town does not sit right from the moment its inhabitants are introduced, and this anticipation is a buzzing sound easily ignored through focus on Von Triers settings, but soon it all comes to the forefront. It becomes a chore, by times, to struggle through the layers of shock and schlock to find what the director/writer was really trying to demonstrate, and he becomes so heavy-handed in his moral lectures (as forceful and repetitive as you imagine Tom’s weekly lectures on moral, social and philosophical issues were to the townspeople) that you find yourself not really caring as much anymore what happens to the people involved. Grace’s initial saviour, Tom, gradually goes from butterfly to caterpillar, struggling against the animal within unsuccessfully. Dogville, it would appear, is the absolute power – corrupting absolutely.
The feeling of being cheated does not materialise because Von Trier handles his topics with such eloquence and stunning prose. Grace loses our compassion, because of her willingness to submit, but she does not lose our belief in her right to a better existence -which is why the characters around her must become more and more base and animalistic. Without this descent into primeval glop we might never have reached closure on the issue – a variation on the ‘sky is always darkest before the dawn’ scenario, and therefore the eruption of chaos and disbelief in the finale comes as a release for all the feelings caged in throughout the movie. So, in the end, Von Trier bows to that most trite of Hollywood pastiches – the happy ending, and leaves us with an almost sweet aftertaste from a somewhat bitter cinematic experience.