Retro-bution
A review of DOGVILLE by Camus | Danish region 2 DVD reviewed by Slarek
 
'Why should I be merciful?"
Grace, played by Nicole Kidman

 

Much as I hate to categorize anything or anyone, I have to reluctantly agree that William Goldman hit the nail pretty much on the head when he wrote that:

"Hollywood movies reassure. Independent films challenge."

Or: the former are explicitly, expressly and only made to make money (art strictly by accident only) and the latter to express a genuine artistic vision (and to make money if at all humanly possible – I mean artists need to eat, right)? It's true that I have been much more enthusiastic about finding a reassuring movie of quality and worth from those that seek to reassure. I know I'll find challenging, questioning and often astonishing works of art if I cast my net wider. I do but only once in a blue VELVET. I am advised to "watch this!" and I do. I am suitably amazed, stunned at the imagination, the virtuosity of direction and performance and in awe at those who managed to find funding for such extraordinary films (after all, that's a powerfully necessary parallel talent). Hollywood pales in any reasonable comparison.

SIDE NOTE: von Trier is probably the best known European independent film maker out there. With Nicole Kidman working with him for nothing (granted, her make-up person and hairdresser cost more than von Trier), you'd think the finance for this movie would be something almost guaranteed. This is the list on the back of the DVD. How many companies did it take to finance and distribute this film?

Zentropa Entertainments8, Filmiväst, ARTE, WDR, 3Cinema, DR, NPS, 2, Eurimages, NFTF, nrw, COBO, AVFondet, Det Danske Filminstitut, ÉCLAIR Laboratoires, Nordisk Film Biografdistribution A/S and Icon.

I'm sorry?

That's eleven including the last one, Mel Gibson's company. Did he read von Trier's screenplay and think, "Hmmm, a blonde, sexy Christ for the modern age?" Let's not forget we could take this huge list another way. How about each and every one of these companies desperately wanted a piece of the 'cool and respectable by association' von Trier pie? Serve it up.

So why don't I seek out more challenging fare more often? Is my taste so narrow, so parochial? For every one Dancer in the Dark, there are twenty Dirty Dancings. For every one von Trier, there're twenty Schumachers (now there's a thought, a chilling one). In short, it's less about my taste and more about what I can share with my family and in writing about those over-hyped, Hollywood mechanically sign posted popcorn ads, I feel like I'm potato-chipping away at everything I despise about modern cinema.

Some people can eat metaphorical, cinematic lobster every day. I can only handle it once a month. I was convinced by print media and friends many months ago that City of God was one of the best movies (mainstream or independent) in the last few years [it is – Slarek]. I nodded my head. I really believed them. No, I really did. So what did I do? I bought the DVD. It sits on my shelves, so far unwatched. It will be when the timing's right. What am I so scared of? What is that ridiculous aspect of myself that often stops me from a truly remarkable cinematic experience? Answers on a postcard. Slarek, I'm pretty sure, has given up on convincing me to ditch Hollywood completely and embrace the true outsiders (artists) of world cinema (including the US though their World Series tends to exclude the rest of us). I read his reviews and once in a while catch one of these works that is rated so highly. I then wonder and wonder why I don't just get around to seeing them all.

Sometimes a movie will come along and have such an effect on a friend that they will then be utterly incapable of keeping it to themselves. So much so that said friend made the effort to buy me a rental copy of the movie he'd been knocked out by. I put it off for a few days, work/family time filling in the cracks and then on Sunday morning I sat down, sighed at the near three hour running time, and slotted that shiny disc in. Three hours later I was in something approaching a state of sublime shock. Cinema is alive and well and living set-less somewhere in the back of beyond called Dogville. Fifteen townsfolk in a depression-soaked American town, take in a gangster-sought-after woman who proves to be a barometer and scapegoat of the town's shortcomings. She is eventually burdened with a bell and tyre iron attached to a chain. That's when I knew I was watching something else (and I mean that in the most positive sense).

That Lars von Trier is an artist, there can be no doubt. Watch Breaking the Waves and remain detached. See? Not that easy. The multi-layers of Dogville, with its rich associations with theatre, literature, religion, film and philosophy, earmark it as a work of some significance. The cliché handed down is that it takes an outsider to truly illuminate another's culture. Well, not only has von Trier attempted to illuminate what makes the US (of A), us (all of us/US), (featured in the UK DVD extras is von Trier's logical admission that he too is 'an American'), he does it in such a way to make his extraordinary conclusions absolutely correct within the framework of his most extraordinary film. To inject some levity to balance the portentousness, I have yet to see Dancer in the Dark... But I have it on DVD. Right next to City of God.

Nothing of great significance really happens for two hours (did I mention that it's a three hour movie)? That's not true. The ground is carefully laid – or rather the carpet – that same carpet which will be whipped from under you as you fall into this film's fly trap of an ending. I take my metaphors like my alcohol. Mixed. OK, so beautiful, mysterious, stranger Grace is adopted by Tom in a small town, (Anytown, USA) in the Rockies. She is accepted by the townsfolk, works for them and then after she becomes a repository for their petty morality, amoral leanings and downright criminally sexual attacks, she has to decide between a few stark choices. What she decides is what I believe the audience decides with her. You go so far with a character. To go further without moral correction (!) seems to be almost wrong and yet – how does anyone manage to be content at the final choices of this angel who's prepared to forgive anyone of their essential and base humanity?

The design of the film is also noteworthy (and absolutely vital to the way the film plays out emotionally). There are no sets, merely stenciled words on the floor indicating whose house we're in, where a dog sits, a gooseberry bush grows. There are no walls and door openings and closings are mimed with their sound effects intact. The set, indeed Dogville itself, is an enclosed unit of human foibles and immoral hypocrisy. If it were shot conventionally with ordinary sets and/or locations, the starkness of the idea would somehow become more dramatic and therefore less effective.

Von Trier is reminding us all the time (with the absence of walls, the barbarous discontinuity of the editing and the literal writing on the wall and floor) that this is not a smooth, slick product which will be swallowed by the maw of the mighty marketing machine and disgorged. It is not homogenised pap, slapping wet into cinemas for patrons to suckle ravenously from. Dogville is a tough sell but the more von Trier's star shines brightly, the more the central irony solidifies. Rage against the dollar factory so successfully, that you become a small subsidiary of that factory. According to the small Cannes documentary on the UK disc, Dogville sold for obscene amounts of money (notably for the German market).

RANT: If I see another movie in which a man blames a woman for making him rape her, I'll scream. I have this theory. Male sexuality is not all-powerful, a force which a male has to give in to because of the alluring power of women. Imagine the following scenario. A male is 30 seconds away from a climax (it can be felt that far in advance – or so I'm told). A person then jumps out of the wardrobe next to the bed and points a very powerful handgun at the male's head. The owner of the handgun then says, "Stop what you're doing or I will pull the trigger spraying your brains on to the wall." I believe that the man will stop. The man will stop. The man may even be rendered limp by the threat. The idea that a woman can legitimately entice a man into rape is simplistic and wrong in every sense. Some women may flirt with that perceived power but only men can employ the force and make it so.

But the simple truth for me is that you can only go so far being accommodating. After that, if you take advantage, if you lie, IF YOU RAPE... then you probably deserve being... Oh shit. I'm against the death penalty.

Art. Thank you Lars.

RANT OVER.

Look at that. I've dismounted the high horse.

Von Trier's troupe includes some striking acting talent. Tending her invisible garden and maintaining an invisible path is Lauren Bacall, her face as iconic as it ever was. Here is a woman who simply has to be seen (photographed) to 'be' to establish a strong character. Hidden amongst Dogville's fifteen is an actress whose talent (criminally) was never exposed to wider audiences. Maybe that's what Blair Brown wanted. But look at her early work in Altered States. She's the absolute star of that film and then cropped up here and there afterwards (just because she resembled Jackie Kennedy, did that mean she had to play the mourning wife to the detriment of a more varied career?) Stellan Skarsgård, a regular von Trier player, does too good a job at being an odious farmer who's in thrall to Grace with horrific consequences. To cleanse myself of his character's behaviour I had to keep watching the scene in Deep Blue Sea when he gets his arm ripped off as Stellan's cross-pollinating cinematic penance. Nicole Kidman was the genetically modified shark. Sharp teeth.

Jean Marc-Barr (as 'the man with the big hat') had me flummoxed. His star turn in The Big Blue (as well as his turn in von Trier's Breaking the Waves) made me think I'd spot him easily. The three 'hats' of the movie, (the sheriff, the farmer and the freight driver) are not – not even collectively – Jean Marc Barr. Aha, one of James Caan's goons (just recognisable given von Trier's penchant for jump cutting, ever-moving and inelegant camerawork).

Paul Bettany – the naked Chaucer from A Knight's Tale and more well known as Russell Crowe's sidekick from both Master and Commander and A Beautiful Mind (and who first attracted serious critical acclaim as the young Malcolm McDowell in Gangster No. 1) – has probably the most difficult part. He has to leak sympathy carefully released over almost three hours. He's Dogville's battery, a proud and vital man whose youth confers upon him a misplaced romanticism. Allied with naïveté, Bettany's Tom starts as the film's romantic lead. How he fares really has to be seen for yourself. But it's a pretty clever performance. James Caan reprises his gangster personae to chilling effect. This is Sonny Corleone having miraculously survived the hail of bullets, now an older, wiser man who knows one thing that defines him and impacts those he comes into contact with. He understands power. Ultimate power.

But, and I wonder if I will ever tire of saying so, the central performance is a towering one – again from the incomparable Nicole Kidman. Here is a movie star AND a character actress who brings Grace to fully fleshed life, to servitude, to victim-hood and to a destiny that more than once echoes Mel Gibson's very own 'Eshwar' or Passion's Jesus as most know him. Kidman wears her vulnerabilities raw and bloodied on her sleeve. When grit is needed she does something most actors cannot do and make it appear natural and effortless. She convinces almost as fast as the click of a switch. One hundred percent. I won't detail the dénouement so I can't illustrate how Kidman manages her extraordinary performance but it's no secret that von Trier pulls emotional truth from his collaborators like hooks from fish. The results are often bloody but tremendously powerful.

You imagine the days are long on von Trier soundstages (I mean he shoots his own movies too) but if emotional manipulation results in such extraordinary films as Dogville, then Lars, manipulate away. The actors know what they are getting in to and more often than not, it's a superb movie.

sound and vision

Though available on a UK region 2 disk, which sports a very fine transfer but minimal extras, we are looking here at what is likely to remain the definitive DVD release of the film, the region 2 Danish 2-disk special edition from the film's original distributor, Nordisk Film.

Framed at 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a pristine transfer that beautifully reproduces the film's carefully controlled colour palette, is crisp without any visible edge enhancement and has a near-perfect contrast range. Shot on high-definition video, with the extraordinary top shots created on a rig of DV-Cam camcorders and manipulated in post-production, there is still a strongly filmic look to the transfer, which reproduces well how it appeared in the cinema.

Three soundtracks are on offer here – English 5.1 surround, English 2.0 stereo and French (dubbed) 5.1. Sonically this is not a show-off film, and though there are some rear effects and the occasional low frequency visit to the sub-woofer, it is the crystal clear reproduction of the dialogue (to give the performers and camera operators von Trier and Anthony Dod Mantle complete freedom on stage, the actors were individually micked up) and sparse but sometimes subtly executed sound effects that earn the transfer full marks.

extra features

This is where the Danish disk and the UK one really part company – where the UK disk has two featurettes and a trailer, the Danish release has a splendid collection of high quality extras.

On disk 1 there is only room for two, the key one being a selected commentary from Lars von Trier and DoP Anthony Dod Mantle, divided into five sections, named for the scenes the discussion accompanies. That lack of a full commentary may at first seem disappointing, but the five sequences collectively add up to 123 minutes, more than two thirds of the total running time. The abrubt way a couple of them kick off suggests that a full commentary was actually recorded but was edited down. Whether this is down to dead patches, a lack of disk space (given the film's length), too much wandering from the point, or comments that the lawyers weren't happy with is uncertain, but what is here is most worthwhile, giving a fair amount of technical information on the shooting, and von Trier's approach to specific scenes and characters. There is a sometimes amusing banter between the two men, with Mantle talking almost non-stop in places and von Trier a far more low key contributor, though when he does talk he always has something interesting to say, whether it be technical (the complexity of the overhead shots), artistic (his and Mantle's camera operating styles), comedic ("Stellan loves to be naked – he's a bit like me that way"), or even confessional (a scene he is not happy with the writing or direction of). What does emerge is how important a film this was for him, and how happy he is with the the finished work, something he manages to convey without once stooping to the sort of "I love this [fill in blank]" comments that blight so many commentaries on recent Hollywood movies. The selected scenes are, by the way: Tom Meets Grace (27 mins); Grace Follows Tom's Plan (15 mins); Fourth of July After All (8.5 mins); Dogville Bares its Teeth (8.5 mins) and The last Illustration (64 mins).

Also on disk 1 is a Trailer, which is presented 4:3 and made up almost exclusively of footage from the Dogville 'Confession Box', more of which can be found in the featurette Confessions, which is detailed below. It's an intriguing way to advertise a film, given that it tells you absolutely nothing about the story or characters and includes no actual film extracts.

The bulk of the extras are on disk 2 and kick off with the best of the lot, a documentary on the making of the film by Sami Saif entitled Dogville Confessions. Shot on video, presented in anamorphic 16:9 and running for 53 mins, this is the sort of background documentary all true film fans dream of finding on a DVD, an intimate, stylish and thoroughly involving look at the shooting of the feature. Essentially in Danish with optional English subtitles, there are inevitably some sequences with the actors in which English is the main language, but the subtitles (Danish and French subtitles are also available) run throughout the film, whatever language is being spoken, which is fair enough given the bilingual nature of the content and the rare multiple subtitle option (at least rare for an extra feature). The content is constantly fascinating, as much for seeing the set in its raw, unlit state as it is for the nicely captured, off-guard moments of rehearsal and the refusal to pretty things up in the mode of EPKs – von Trier is shown comforting Kidman with a big hug after the rape scene, but also in almost petty verbal conflict with Paul Bettany, a confrontation the director cuts short and strides away from. At one point von Trier is even caught suffering from what appears to be a form of emotional collapse. The handling is very much part of the film's effectiveness, from the nifty editing to the use of sound and slowed-down imagery to emphasise the weariness of the cast and crew at a press conference. An excellent inclusion – if only other behind-the-scenes documentaries were half as good.

Also part of the Dogville Cinema subsection is Trier, Kidman and Cannes, a 23 minute look behind the scenes at the 2003 Cannes film festival, where Dogville played in competition but astonishingly won no awards. A production for Danish television, the content is a mixture of Danish and English, with optional English subtitles that, unlike on Dogville Confessions, are specific to the non-English sections of the programme. This generally lively extra can also be found on the UK region 2 disk and includes memorable von Trier moments, one of my favourites being the phone-delivered message in which he wearily instructs Dogville's executive producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen to "Tell them I love them, and they can fuck off."

The third entry into the Dogville Cinema section is The Dogville Test, a 6 minute trail run of key scenes, shot with a Danish cast and narrator as a test run for the visual style that was to be a key aspect of finished film. This is referred to more than once in the main commentary, and is worth checking out before giving that a listen. There is an optional commentary for this by von Trier and Anthony Dod Mantle, the key point of discussion being the balance between naturalism and artificiality.

The second section consists of seven Interviews, all shot at Cannes 2003 by a variety of TV crews and ranging in length from 4 to 7 minutes. The interviews are with Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård, assistant director Anders Refn, producer Vibeke Windelov and Lars von Trier, Kidman and von Trier being the subject of two interviews each. All are of interest, but von Trier's are far and away the most worthwhile, as he frankly discusses the political aspects of the film and his own views on a modern global America. Kidman's interviews are conducted in English, all of the others are in Danish with optional English subtitles.

Confessions, also on the UK disk, is a 17 minute (divided into six shooting week-based chapters) compilation of footage shot in the film's 'confession box' a place where anyone involved in the production could go to sound off about any aspect of the film. It's a fascinating inclusion that leaves you aching for more, the contributions being a nice mix of the jocular and the sincere. My favourite has to be Cleo King's cheerful admission that she is rather hot for von Trier, who she wants to kiss and "hold to my breast."

Dogville Visuals has two subsections. Visual Effects is an 8.5 minute look at the construction of the film's extraordinary top shots (created with a grid of 156 Sony PD150 DV-Cam camcorders), crane shots, green screen work and computer compositing. Save for the narration on the film extracts, this is a purely visual extra, but more detail is provided by the optional commentary, in English, by visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth. For anyone involved in or interested in the process of modern digital film production, this is very good stuff.

Also in this section is Poster Artwork, which tracks the development of the promotional artwork for the film through eight pages which include the poster and a textual information it in whichever language you select at the start of the disk (English, in my case). The posters are reproduced at a decent size and the text is clear and informative.

The final section, Press Conferences, contains footage from three press conferences, extracts from which can be found in both Dogville Confessions and Trier, Kidman and Cannes. Trollhättan 2002 runs for 10 minutes and was shot early in the filming. The event is hosted in English, has a winningly ramshackle feel to it, and is interesting to see without the effects and music applied to it in Dogville Confessions, where is was seen as a very wearing experience for the cast and von Trier. Cannes 2003 runs for 21 minutes, is conducted in English and has its moments, with the comedy supplied by Stellen Starsgård when his microphone malfunctions: "I'm a theatre actor!" he booms, "I don't need this!" He then answers the whole question as if performing to the gallery. Finally Meeting Danish Press is a 3.5 minute almost casual Q&A (it appears to have been done in a corridor) between Danish journalists and von Trier. Again, this has optional English subtitles.

summary

Dogville is, even by von Trier's standards, an extraordinary dramatic and cinematic achievement and one of the director's most perfectly realised works to date. It has a remarkable visual sensibility, a terrific cast on very fine form – Kidman in particular here proves just how good an actor she can be given the right role in the right project – and plays its audience beautifully. Four viewings in, it loses none of its power, and if anything this helps to confirm its greatness.

Although available on a UK region 2 disk with a fine transfer, a 5.1 soundtrack and two reasonable extras, this Danish 2 disk special edition for Nordisk blows it out of the water and really should be hunted out at all costs by anyone who, like us, was blown away by von Trier's magnificent vision. There are a few on-line stores that will help you out here (try Laserdisken), though in my case having a Danish brother-in-law certainly helps here (cheers Kristian!). It's a marvelous film on a superb double-disk set – Dogville Confessions is almost worth the trouble of hunting this DVD out alone. One of the films of the year gets one of the DVD releases of the year. Excellent.

Dogville

Denmark / Sweden / France/ Norway / Netherlands / Finland / Germany / Italy / Japan / USA / UK 2003
177 mins
director
Lars von Trier
starring
Nicole Kidman
Harriet Anderson
Lauren Bacall
Jean-Marc Barr
Blair Brown
James Caan
Ben Gazzara
Philip Baker Hall
John Hurt
Zeljko Ivanek
Udo Kier

DVD details
region 2 (Denmark)
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Stereo 2.0
Dolby Surround 5.1
languages
English
French
subtitles
English
Danish
French
extras
Trailer
Selected commentary
Dogville Confessions documentary
Trier, Kidman and Cannes documentary
Dogville Test
Interviews
Confessions
Visual effects
Poster artwork
Press conferences
distributor
Nirdisk Film
review posted
1 November 2004

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