With his Nicholson-like glint'n'grin and devilish sense of humour, Lars Von Trier here embraces his reputation as global cinema's enfant terrible. A hard-edged picture, Dogville says "screw you" to anyone who deemed Dancer In The Dark or Breaking The Waves misogynistic. "You think that was abusive to women?" he seems to be saying. "Get a load of this..."
Kidman copes with everything that's thrown at her - - violence, rape, Lauren Bacall - - but she won't be back for part two of the director's proposed trilogy about America. Well, we hope Hollywood makes her happy, but on the evidence of a one-note performance in Cold Mountain and an unconvincing turn in The Human Stain (both filmed afterwards, but released before), she benefits immensely from a tough-as-teak director who won't allow her to fake it. Either that or Dogville was so draining she needed to go on (ahem) cruise control. Because her acting here is astonishing. She's soulful, sexy, tender and true - - embodying her character name (Grace), without becoming a caricature. If her turn in The Hours deserved an Oscar (it didn't), this should get a couple - - especially given the supporting cast are no make-the-star-shine slouches. Paul Bettany hangs between sympathetic and sinister as Kidman's love interest, and it's excellent to see Ben Gazzara relish a role that matches his ability (as an apparently benign, half-blind old man), and an old-time Hollywood actress such as Bacall in challenging, contemporary cinema.
For Dogville is challenging. A three-hour examination of small-town hate and hypocrisy, filmed in unflashy, unsparing style, it doesn't even allow any lush Colorado scenery to soften the impact of what we watch; in fact, there are no buildings and barely any props. The town is drawn in chalk outlines on a black stage, each structure identified by its name scrawled on the floor, seen in a series of God's-eye-view overhead shots. Sound effects are used to indicate opening doors; the actions mimed by the actors. As gimmicky as this device first appears, it allows the audience to focus on the ideas being unveiled.
When the picture bowed at Cannes, it lost the Palme d'Or to Elephant and the US trade press went (judge)mental over its supposed anti-US stance. They were particularly riled by the closing credits composed of Grapes Of Wrath-style, Depression-era photos soundtracked by David Bowie's `Young Americans'.
But Dogville is sympathetic to the people's plight in a way the media never is, because there's big business in peddling Puritanism. Dogville's target is not America, but repression, not Americans, but the horror of hypocrisy. And while it may be overlong, it's also provocative, compelling and downright impressive.