The entire film takes place in a black box on a sound stage where the buildings and locations of the town are outlined in chalk on the floor, like a life size map with minimal props around to sell the idea that this is where these citizens live. It's strange for a fully fledged film, but it doesn't take long to get used to, as the story and characters are enticing enough to fill in the gaps for a suspension of belief. Before long, you won't even notice that walls don't hide anything from anyone and the mine at the edge of town isn't just a series of wooden arches.
With a background that is mostly black, the cinematography is pretty limited to a few interesting lighting effects and pulling focus to the actors at hand. It seems that it would be very fun and freeing for an actor to be able to work with an ensemble cast on a project like this. The ensemble is so filled with great actors that there are too many to name them all, but the chemistry among them is smooth, fitting them together like pieces of a complete puzzle. They all get their moments to shine within the stories that intertwine these households together.
Dogville is somehow a convincing combination of several mediums, film, the stage and prose, that could have gone horribly wrong. All three of these mediums have different ways of telling the same story that need to be taken into account when adapting from one to the other, but here, they all work separately and simultaneously together without becoming a jumbled mess. This is like a filmed production of a stage show playing out the actions read from a novel, with John Hurts as the voice of God narrating the actions, thoughts, backgrounds and feelings of all of the characters, which sounds a bit much but actually ends up being simple and lovely.
Though it does still tread that balance of realism and fantasy, this is very different for a film from Lars Von Trier. It is much less involved and simple, in a way, but that lends itself to how Von Trier may be perceiving America, a place the director hasn't really experienced first hand, and it's people who have long been critically harsh and at odds with him. Even still, Dogville manages to be yet another bitter and thought provoking look at life and the struggles we experience.
Von Trier, the most controversial director of the 2000s (sorry Tom Six), doesn't make such a bold claim with outright magnification; he takes nearly three hours to build upon the suggestion, mounting and mounting until the thought becomes dreadfully exaggerated. And, in a polarizing method of story amplification, sets are not sets but chalky squares on a soundstage, given identity through minimalist props and map-like text designating the area (the main road is stamped "Elm St.). For most, "Dogville"'s austere texture will be off-putting. Its complete lack of a structural "setting" and its epic running-time are attributes easier to leave than to take.
I, perhaps in the minority, don't just appreciate von Trier's daring filmmaking approach here; I applaud it. It works. It's thrilling. "Dogville" dawdles at times, and it is especially difficult to avoid clock-watching after the second hour, but impressive is the way that von Trier manages to pull off a film so stylistically eyebrow raising. We are only distracted by its design for the first few minutes; the screenplay, so strong in its ideas and dialogue, gives the environment a three-dimensional shape. Thought-provoking and thoroughly one-of-a-kind, this is a film you won't be forgetting any time soon.
Set during The Great Depression, "Dogville" follows Grace (Nicole Kidman), a woman on the run from gangsters. Fleeing the law, she stumbles upon Dogville, a miniature Rocky Mountain town with a population so small it is nearly familial. Tight-knit and untrusting of outsiders, the citizens are unsure of whether to accept Grace into their community. It is eventually decided, through Tom (Paul Bettany), the self-appointed spokesman of the public, that Grace can stay as long as she makes herself useful, acting as a maid for anyone who asks. People are reluctant, but before long, she becomes a welcome addition to the normally close-minded Dogville.
While most films would end happily, with Grace starting a new chapter in her life, "Dogville" continues on and descends into more malevolent territory. As one too many secrets come to light and more and more citizens begin to harbor hateful feelings toward Grace, it doesn't take long for the once pleasant town to transform into a poisonous brewing of malice.
It took me three days to finish "Dogville", pacing myself at an hour every night -- not a response of boredom, but a response hoping to savor. With nine chapters and a prologue, the film is decidedly a magnum opus of ideas, most of them penetrative if you take the time to really think about what you're watching. By spacing viewing out as far as possible, I was then able to digest the film -- helpful considering its size -- and in return, I found myself riveted. Not riveted in the same way I was when watching Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play verbal cat-and-house in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?": riveted by the performances, von Trier's unfolding of his conceptual idiosyncrasies.
"Dogville"'s plunge into perniciousness does not come swiftly; it climbs slowly, arriving almost inevitably. "Evil can arise anywhere," von Trier stated about the film upon release. "As long as the situation is right." With a relationship built on enigma and dead end, the town's disdain for Grace comes as no surprise, but the way they make it known is terrifying, affecting us enormously. Humans may be inherently cruel and violent, but von Trier's delivery of the sentiment is hardly contrived. If most were to philander around a hellhole like Dogville long enough, how long would it be before they spoke their minds instead of hiding their feelings for the sake of manners? How long would it be before confrontations became a norm? The shocking conclusion places morality itself in question. Heaven may be a place on earth if you find the right person, but if your life is sinful, crime-riddled, lonesome, does politeness, unfiltered kindness, matter?
A film like "Dogville" requires performers unafraid of ambitious material, and the cast, large and monumental, transcends limitations. Kidman is fearless, by turns sympathetic and maddening, and her co-stars, particularly Bacall, Clarkson, and Bettany, startle us in their ability to convincingly walk around wearing two faces and really mean it when they rip off their inviting one.
"Dogville" is an extremely difficult film. It requires a viewer that regards patience as a virtue. But with its cerebral ideas and deceptively condensed setting, it offers filmmaking thrilling in its unwillingness to conform. Von Trier doesn't fear his audience and he doesn't fear his innermost beliefs. Call him controversial, call him xenophobic; he goes where other directors wouldn't dare.
The unusual, to say the least, setting takes minutes to become "nornal". And, despite everything happens in an almost empy theater stage, the plot is so interesting and catchy that the almost tree hours of the film looks much shorter. It is a little boring on spots, but it does not last long, something unexpected, and often extreme, is going to happen all the times.
This movie, which runs for a rather long 3 hours, is built around a unique mise-en-scene conceit: while the film's story is set in a town in Colorado in the 1930s, the actual set is just a huge, empty stage with the outlines of buildings drawn in chalk on the floor and labelled. There are a few props - beds, cabinets, a couple of cars, etc. - but the buildings themselves are purely imaginary. Whenever the actors "enter" one, they put their hands around invisible doorknobs to open the invisible doors. The whole thing is a bit like an experimental theater piece, but with uses of sound and cinematography unique to film.
The story revolves around a woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman) who appears in the tiny town of Dogville while running away from gangsters for unexplained reasons. The town has to decide what to do with her presence, and the film spends the next three hours charting the rise and fall of Grace's relationship to the town. There are quite a lot of great actors playing the townsfolk - Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, Stellan Skarsgaard, Jeremy Davies, Philip Baker Hall, Chloe Sevigny, and Lauren Bacall among them. Everyone does a great job committing to the unusual premise, and their performances collectively create a strange but believable little world.
In spite of the obviously bizarre staging, in some ways the film's story and characters feel a bit more conventional than usual for von Trier. At times, the film seemed like a dark twist on things like the play Our Town or the novel Winesburg, Ohio. Eventually, of course, this being von Trier, things go down into utter sadness and degradation, but what did you expect? One of my main criticisms of von Trier's Nymphomaniac was that the bleak ending felt out of place and trite; here, the similarly bleak ending actually feels earned and inevitable. My main complaint here is that the movie at times feels like it's 3 hours long for the sake of being 3 hours long; there's some material that probably could've been cut without much changing the overall effect of the movie. Still, this is a better, smarter, more restrained piece of filmmaking than I ever would've thought von Trier capable of after my initial exposure to him. If you have the patience for this sort of thing, I do recommend trying it some time.