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DOGVILLE (article first published : 2004-09-21)

To say the films of Swedish director Lars von Trier are very much an acquired taste is no exaggeration and his latest, Dogville, running a behind-numbing two minutes short of three hours, is most certainly no exception.

It has been imaginatively and audaciously conceived as a minimalistic, highly theatrical drama of hypocrisy, humiliation and revenge.

The action unfurls on a sound stage where the small Colorado town of the title has been envisaged, plan-like, with chalk outlines denoting buildings. Occasional props - pieces of furniture here, a window and door frame there - are used to suggest buildings and rooms, while chalk scrawlings on the floor suggest other things: "gooseberry bushes", "old mine", "old lady's bench", "steep hill" - even "dog".

The opening and closing of doors is mimed, sound effects accompanying these actions.

Yes, it's all very overwhelmingly artsy-tartsy.

But I enjoyed this gimmick and performances are excellent from a stellar ensemble cast including Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Chloe Sevigny, James Caan, Ben Gazzara and a very weathered Lauren Bacall.

Kidman, giving of her best, plays Grace. She's a fugitive who, in the 30s, wanders into Dogville after weedy resident and wannabe writer and philosopher Tom (Bettany), with whom Grace later forms an alliance, hears gunshots in the mountains. Although wary of strangers, the close-knit community slowly warms to Grace, their tolerance rewarded by her doing small chores for them. However, the more Grace does, the more she is expected to do and she is eventually exploited way beyond the point of humiliation.

Von Trier turns the moral focus on folk who turn their own misfortunes and inadequacies into the persecution of an outsider. Dogville becomes a microcosm of a country where the strong, their sweet exteriors notwithstanding, bark and bite at the weak.

For all its ingenuity and stylistic flourishes, Dogville ultimately loses a lot of points because of its ridiculous length, ponderous pacing, often irritating, hand-held camerawork and the many distractions of its stark, stagey set.

Also, the story becomes relentlessly bleak, tedious to the point of boring, and I, for one, am now miffed at Von Trier's continuing penchant for the degradation of his female lead characters. He seems to relish the prolonged scenes of pain and suffering here and, frankly, it becomes more than a little uncomfortable. Rating: 5/10. Billy Suter




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