DOGVILLE Who doesn’t want to see Nicole wearing a cowbell?

Dogville

dir. von Trier

Opens Fri April 23

Cinema 21

Among the cornucopia of charges leveled at Lars von Trier after the Cannes premiere of his last film, Dancer in the Dark--2000's nouveau musical in which a blind immigrant in the 1940s Pacific Northwest is driven to kill then executed by the state--was the priggish gripe that the Danish von Trier had no business placing his dark fable in a country he'd never set foot in. Bristling with the knowledge that the makers of Casablanca never visited Morocco, von Trier took the critique as a challenge, and in Dogville, he places America center stage, using the land of opportunity as both setting and subject.

Located in the Rocky Mountains during the Great Depression, von Trier's Dogville is an isolated mining town populated by a small cluster of citizens, whose mettle is tested by the arrival of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful young woman on the run from gangsters. At the urging of Tom, Dogville's resident philosopher/moralist, the town agrees to harbor the mysterious fugitive, who soon ingratiates herself to the townsfolk through daily service--tending the shopkeeper's gooseberry bushes, visiting the blind shut-in. But as the mobsters' hunt for Grace deepens, the people of Dogville begin to question the cost of their hospitality, subjecting Grace to an ever-darkening series of humiliations until a blast of vengeful fire brings the cycle of violence to its bloody end.

The manner of the film is resolutely, unapologetically heavy-handed. In lieu of three-dimensional characters, von Trier populates his town with Americana stereotypes, from the lofty dreamer (unwinkingly named Thomas Edison Jr.) to a waddling Negro maid straight out of '40s Hollywood. Furthermore, von Trier's types are made to play out their pedantic fates quite literally on a platform--Dogville exists only as a soundstage, with crucial elements ("the old mine," "Ma Ginger's Store," "dog") demarcated by white outlines and stenciled letters. It's a testament to the depth and breadth of von Trier's vision that Dogville's three-hour clobbering of its audience feels less like a sermon and more like a revelation.

Actually, "revelation" isn't right, as Dogville doesn't reveal so much as it acknowledges. It doesn't take a revelation to see America as a land of grand ideals gone awry, a place where the weak and vulnerable are exploited and ignored; some would say this state of affairs is the natural byproduct of capitalism. But as with his earlier films, von Trier bypasses pedantry with a God's-eye perspective of his proceedings, eschewing easy answers for an expansive view that seems to implicate everyone involved.

Dogville is far from perfect--von Trier's insistence on stilted dialogue (translated from Dutch to English) makes a few of his actors look like amateurs, and things drag seriously in the final stretch. But for every audience groan there are numerous gasps of perverse delight, the most memorable of which are supplied by Nicole Kidman. Not to be outdone by Breaking the Waves' Emily Watson or Dancer in the Dark's Bjork, Kidman submits to von Trier's scriptural sadism with gusto, bringing a piercing humanity to a character that is admittedly a superhuman ideal. Only in the final act--when Grace is made to stagger through Dogville dragging a rusty flywheel chained to her neck (complete with mini cowbell)--do things tilt toward the totally ridiculous. By the time Grace exacts her film-ending revenge, we're thoroughly back on her side, as resigned to (and eager for) the carnage as she is.

Much wind has been blown about Dogville's perceived "anti-Americanism" (particularly following the film's debut at Cannes shortly after the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom). The film I saw transcended any such easy designation. In the end, von Trier's Dogville is a place of big dreams and great fear, where everyone left standing is culpable in the carnage. Looks like America to me.