You've gotta hand it to Lars von Trier: possibly the only contemporary filmmaker who can actually raise a ruckus among cineastes, he championed digital filmmaking, revitalized Scandinavian cinema, made stars out of Emily Watson and Björk, and spearheaded the sole new film movement of the last 30 years (Dogme). And even so, he manages to take major artistic risks with each new feature.
Dogville, his latest, is a successful blend of Trier's early, formalistic work (Europa, aka Zentropa) and his recent gritty tragedies (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark). Nicole Kidman stars as his latest martyr, a desperate woman on the run from gangsters in Depression-era America. She flees to the titular small town, whose tight-knit residents, wary of her dangerous past, reluctantly agree to grant her asylum - in exchange for her performing tasks for each of the townspeople. As time passes, Dogville becomes more dependent on her labors even as its citizens pay her less and demand more, inevitably including sexual favors.
Trier serves up another harsh look at human cruelty, while drawing parallels between Kidman's trials and the immigrant experience in America. Setting Dogville apart from his previous work is its bold visual presentation, in which the entire town is depicted as a mostly bare soundstage, the houses mere chalk outlines on the floor, the windows and doors invisible, with sound effects creating the creaks and bangs as the actors mime opening and closing them. This theatricality suggests both Thornton Wilder and Bertolt Brecht, with good reason, for Dogville is nothing if not a fierce Brechtian satire on Wilder's smalltown American ideal, where the greedy establishment pisses on the working class, and blackmail is a way of life.
Detractors of Trier's recent films who were offended by watching women subjected to all manner of indignations will find more of the same here, until a satisfyingly shocking conclusion which not only turns the tables on the film's characters, but also suggests Trier may finally be abandoning his running theme of woman-as-martyr. (In any case, neither his nor David Lynch's films are anywhere near as sexist as those of Hollywood good guys Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis.)
Dogville is not for everybody: if you're not turned off by the sparse visual style or the emotional, physical and sexual abuse, then how does a three-hour running time sound? Not to mention John Hurt's pompous narration. But for the brave, Trier provides a smorgasbord of memorable scenes and ideas, with an excellent Kidman leading an ace supporting cast. Dogville is a great achievement, sure to inspire argument and imitation, and further establishing Lars von Trier as one of the most important filmmakers working today.