Thursday, October 06, 2005


A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

# Director: Lars von Trier
# Format: Color, Closed-captioned, Dolby
# Rated: R
# Studio: Lions Gate Home Entertainment, 2004
# Price: $19.98

I tend to pick through new releases in movies much as I do books in bookstores: I avoid the ones in great, showy piles with titles we've all heard ad nauseum and take a more careful look at those with single copies, perhaps at the back of the shelf, perhaps to find buried treasure. That was how I found "Dogville."

The solid cast hinted at quality: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, and many others. Director Lars Von Trier has put together this innovative and unusual, if challenging, movie about a woman named Grace (Kidman), running from gangsters, who takes refuge in a small town called Dogville sometime during the 1930s.

Acting, as it turns out, is what this film relies upon exclusively. The scene unfolds on a basic black stage--black floor with chalk lines designating streets, squares and rectangles that serve as houses and shops and town halls. Nothing, but nothing, detracts from the actors and their exchanges with each other, their movements across this black expanse.

Grace slips into town, hiding where she can, as gangsters pursue her for not quite explained reasons. We are not meant to know... yet. She is found by Tom Edison, a young man with a pale, wincing, if philosophical manner. He takes her and her cause to the town hall meeting, where her dilemma is discussed. She needs a place to hide from her pursuers, and the town inhabitants decide, with some misgivings, to offer it to her.

What unfolds next is our increasingly uncomfortable watch over the gradual ethical and moral decay of this (any?) town. Grace seeks work to earn her keep. Initially, no one seems to have any for her. There is an unspoken, but polite resistance to her presence. Little by little, however, people open their homes and businesses to her, and as they learn how well she works, they give her ever more to do. Since she does not resist increased labor, she is given more. And more. And more to do. A sped up sequence in the film has us watching from above, rather God-like, as Grace zips through town, from one house to the next, from one store to the next, doing her duties and accepting more duties, and this at decreasing pay.

It appears the lesson here is that excellence never goes unpunished, and when we do nothing to express our personal boundaries of what kind of treatment we will accept, we are inevitably, eventually, taken for granted, inviting our own abuse.

But the lesson grows far more harsh. Grace is an attractive woman. She is sweet. She is pleasant and eager to please. She is helpful, kind, forgiving, accepting, nice nice nice. Men in Dogville take notice. Their hunger begins to show. Their hunger turns into the ugliest forms of lust, and Grace is raped by the keeper of the town apple orchard. We feel a mix of horror and sympathy for the ever suffering Grace at this scene of violence.

And still, this woman has no boundaries. Still, she does nothing to stop the downslide of the town's morals, allowing herself to become also the town prostitute, the town slave, the town joke. Even the children turn against her. Only Tom Edison declares in a simpering voice that, oh, he loves her. Yet he quietly stands by as she is debased to the point of having an iron collar bolted around her neck and then to an iron chain, fastened to a heavy wheel that she must then drag behind her. Indeed, he expects gratitude from her. Even... reciprocated love.

The movie ends with a fascinating twist that asks a question each viewer must then answer for him or herself: is it saintliness or is it arrogance to accept and forgive the transgressions of others endlessly, without limit? Is it a kindness to play the victim and the martyr? Or is it nothing other than giving permission, even invitation, for those around us to debase us as far as we allow it? In short, did God really mean for us to be doormats?

Suffice it to say, I was completely nailed by this movie. To the spot. It has me feeling, thinking, wondering, questioning and understanding. What more can a good movie do?

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