The king of a false movement directs his ice queen.
Directed by Lars Von Trier
New Clothes isn’t a tight-enough fit for Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier.
Better to call him King of the Know-Nothings. The Jupiter of Cinematic Three-Card
Monte. Expect historians to one day look back on the launching of Von Trier’s
Dogme95 (the manifesto that brought filmmaking closer to amateur porn) and laugh.
That overhyped, low-fi creed made it possible for naive film buffs to think
that by trading celluloid for video they were welcoming the arrival of a great
artistic millennium. Some people can’t wait to be duped, and Von Trier’s
Dogme trick fit right into the market for new technology and cultural amnesia.
latest thing–film? video?–is a hi-def pseudo-epic called Dogville.
As always, it boasts his ambitious, show-offy technique. The opening is a wide
overhead shot of a soundstage interior that presents the layout of the town
of Dogville as if it were a board game–a portentous esthete’s Candyland.
Videographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera slowly cranes down onto the set,
its obviousness becoming part of Von Trier’s panoply of alienation effects.
Dogville’s second-biggest device is a mysterious female stranger
sarcastically named Grace (Nicole Kidman) who shows up in Dogville and becomes
the victim and slave of its inhabitants. This plot is certainly moralistic,
but Von Trier isn’t simply making a fable. He wants to dismantle "fable"
by deconstructing the paradigms and archetypes that we customarily use for ethical
and emotional instruction.
cultural curator like Coppola or Techine, whose formalist works (One from
the Heart, French Provincial) synthesized the trends of different eras,
Von Trier is antagonistic toward the cinema’s traditions. He makes debased
references to art styles that have lost popular currency. His sour take on Dreyer
in Breaking the Waves kept spirituality at a distance. The brutal imitation
of Fellini in Dancer in the Dark deliberately mangled the pleasures of
musicals and melodramas. This perverse method probably seems inventive to the
uninitiated, yet Von Trier very cannily courts an audience of smart-ass cynics.
hard to think of another director so caught up in wrangling with cinema’s
past who then dares to offer that disrespect as if it were a breakthrough. Pasolini,
Derek Jarman and Alex Cox were iconoclasts; Von Trier’s revelations about
human cruelty are standard if anything. Instead, his foregrounding of actresses
in maudlin, masochistic roles proves that he is in fact well aware of offering
new-era icons–Emily Watson, Bjork and now Kidman. Dogville reaches
its visual peak after Kidman’s Grace is mistreated and she wearily falls
asleep in the back of a farmer’s truck. Von Trier overlaps the image with
a textured shot of the truck’s apple load. That’s the film’s
only hint of realism. (Its autumnal beauty is ravishing–but pointless.)
Von Trier is after something akin to the same old art-movie sentimentality,
yet he uses superficially tough storylines and disruptive, irritating narrative
tropes rather than pinpoint and clarify an emotional truth. Dogville’s
theme is the beast in mankind (Mondo Cane) but it’s never convincing,
because it uses an overly studied artifice (including a pompous voice-over narrator).
Von Trier’s method is similar to Todd Haynes’ in Far from Heaven.
Both charlatans have won acclaim for dramas that postpone catharsis while encouraging
the audience to feel smugly superior to conventional (and more adroit) narrative
itself is a less interesting place than Dogpatch, the back-country holler that
50s graphic artist Al Capp used to focus his then-topical social satire in the
comic strip Li’l Abner. A better-informed culture (or one with longer
memory) would scoff at Von Trier’s pretenses. We should at least have the
confidence to question them. Nervous laughter is all you hear in the audience
at Dogville, because Von Trier lacks wit. He doesn’t know enough
about American life to satirize small-town foible or marvel at its eccentricities
(qualities that made Neil Young’s Greendale remarkable–and
a necessary antidote to this). Von Trier has cooked up Dogville as a
love/hate letter to America’s cultural preeminence. Set in a cosmetic past
where the performers use antique props, wear old-time costumes and putter about
as on old Playhouse 90 tv dramas, Dogville essentially takes place
in an eternal present. It’s a predominantly white town with only several
black characters. Thus, the film is a relentless and phony condemnation of American
archetypes. (When I first saw Dogville last year, I faulted Von Trier
for his anachronistically servile blacks. But then Anthony Minghella’s
Cold Mountain opened, confirming that European elites misperceive American
As Von Trier
slogs through Grace’s demoralization and assorted arty effects (mixing
gangster-movie and crackerbarrel motifs), he does little more than gloss his
own confusion about Amerika. The period details in this board game suggest that
Depression-era hard times might be the reason for the citizens of Dogville’s
spite, but the game’s rules (its logic) are not fun or credible, just bleak.
They are drawn pretentiously from Franz Kafka and Dashiell Hammett. Grace is
first welcomed by the townspeople then literally abused (through rape, hard
labor, concubinage). Finally, she is convinced by a character known as the Big
Man (James Caan) to move from martyr to madwoman and take her bloody revenge–a
veritable Red Harvest.
Last Man Standing (an unofficial version of Red Harvest) distilled
both the western and gangster genres into a kinesthetic essay on American violence.
Difficult to grasp as a story (Bruce Willis made a lifeless protagonist), it
was still a fascinating, abstract, blood-red meditation on moral decline. Hill,
a filmmaker of superior talent and philosophical precision, has never received
Von Trier’s critical eclat. You simply have to appreciate Hill’s evocation
of the ineffable for yourself–feel it through his vivid presentation of
American male custom and temperament. Hill may be genre-fixated, but Von Trier’s
hodgepodge of genres is crazily inconsistent. To buffer his imprecision, he
sends mixed signals with female protagonists who are always passive victims.
Von Trier expects them to provide a direct line to universal sensitivity rather
than cultural authenticity. But with an icy actress like Nicole Kidman, Dogville
becomes further remote. The international cast of "little people"
(including Harriet Andersson, Ben Gazzara, Jeremy Davies, Patricia Clarkson
even Lauren Bacall, who pantomimes doing farm work) doesn’t make any recognizable
cultural connection; the film is just annoyingly fanciful. When James Caan makes
his film-noiry appearance, it’s one of the most laughable scenes in modern
cinema. That puffy, craggy Sonny Corleone face, as Caan dispenses a hard choice
to Grace, becomes even more laughable when you realize that a has-been movie
star is Von Trier’s personification of a pitiless dog (which is "God"
Grace represents our corrupted selves–humankind as an aggrieved supermodel.
(Some people want Nicole Kidman to be for English-language films what Jeanne
Moreau and Catherine Deneuve were for French cinema. Trouble is, Kidman keeps
choosing bad scripts.) No doubt Von Trier is aware that Grace’s circumstance
recalls Frederic Durrenmatt’s The Visit, which put a wronged woman’s
personal and social dilemma into the form of modern classical drama (recently
well-adapted in Djibril Diop Mambety’s The Visit). Grace’s
punishment also recalls the high school literature classic, Shirley Jackson’s
The Lottery (which even an episode of The Simpsons has absorbed).
and bowdlerized legends are capped by Dogville’s traducing of Thornton
Wilder’s Our Town, an authentically American work of universal sentiment
that has fallen into disrepute among the cognoscenti. (No less an authority
on profitable trash than Roger Ebert recently dismissed Our Town as irrelevant.)
Von Trier’s condemnatory version of Our Town cuts out the sentiment
in order to seem newly relevant. He empties a familiar theatrical form to its
bare-stage, board-game skeleton just to deny audiences any familiar satisfactions.
The point is to preclude self-examination and emphasize disdain. In a final
repellant move, Von Trier closes the movie with a still-photo montage of historical
American tragedies like Warhol’s Disaster series. Timed to David
Bowie’s "Young Americans," it seems designed to flatter self-hating
hipsters. Dogville is one of the most fatuous movies ever made. It’s
an anti-American art project, but it is also anti-art.
Von Trier retrospective at the American Museum of the Moving Image begins Sat.,