Once you've established your credentials as a provocateur, what do you do for an encore? In films like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, Danish director Lars von Trier rejected mainstream filmmaking, embracing primitive filming techniques and nihilistic plotlines instead. In spearheading the Dogme 95 group, he received an enormous amount of critical attention, even while his films were largely ignored by mass markets.
Dogville, von Trier's latest, is the story of a beautiful runaway who is repeatedly raped and abused by the inhabitants of a backwater village. Shot on what is essentially an empty soundstage, and almost three hours in length, it is a slap in the face to conventional filmgoers. Von Trier supplies enough of an intellectual apparatus to give Dogville the veneer of art, but at its core this is a hollow, mean-spirited work.
Von Trier divides Dogville into nine chapters and a prologue. Early on we meet Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), an aspiring writer who thinks of himself as the conscience of Dogville, an isolated village in the Rocky Mountains. When the fugitive Grace (Nicole Kidman) arrives after an offscreen gunfight, Tom assembles the villagers in the church to decide her fate.
To stay hidden from the police, Grace offers to work for the villagers. She reads to blind Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara), babysits for Vera (Patricia Clarkson), labors in Chuck's (Stellan Skarsg‰rd) apple orchard, and cleans up Ma Ginger's (Lauren Bacall) shop. When a cop comes around asking questions, the villagers make Grace work twice as hard for half the pay.
After trying to escape in Ben's (Zeljko Ivanek) truck, Grace is dragged back to Dogville and chained to an enormous, cast-iron wheel. Powerless, she becomes a sexual slave to the men of the village. Tom, who professes to love Grace, is too timid to intervene. It takes the arrival of a gangster (James Caan) to decide her ultimate fate.
Dogville ends with a montage of Depression-era photographs, gradually intermixed with more recent pictures of conflict in the United States. Is von Trier saying that, by extension, American society is hopelessly corrupt? Is Grace's rape and degradation a metaphor for capitalism's exploitation of the poor? Is her revenge an expression of vigilante lawlessness, or the revolt of the masses? Is it possible that von Trier is simply adopting the narrative strategies of Victorian pornography, with the 'good' parts stripped away? Viewers who make it all the way through Dogville may expect an exam at the end of the film. Others will be reminded of Preston Sturges' warning: 'There's nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open.'