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Influential filmmaker leans on another celebrity to present a social critique

Lars von Trier is a major filmmaker out of the innovative filmmaking group Dogme 95 (Dogma 95) best known for drafting the group’s ascetic “vow of charity” manifesto that writes off sets, artificial lighting, and soundtrack music as decadent crutches.

Von Trier’s “Dogville” opens this week in New York, but his most recent film, a documentary, “The Five Obstructio­ns,” which opens at the Film Forum in May, offers a telling look at the director. In it, he comes across as a petty tyrant, ordering co-director and mentor Jørgen Leth around the world in what amount to five remakes of the older man’s 1967 short, “The Perfect Human.” Von Trier ultimately tries to take over the film by speaking in Leth’s name to criticize himself, an act that suggests volumes about his attitude toward his characters. He’s also cynical enough to have revealed to a French magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, that he dedicated an early student film to a fictitious cancer victim.

None of this is to say that Dogme has not influenced low-budget filmmakers all over the world. Von Trier’s talent was well established by 1996’s “Breaking the Waves,” which brilliantly combined religious allegory with a pseudo-documentary style.

There are two kinds of von Trier films. The first includes “Breaking The Waves,” “Zentropa,” “Dancer in the Dark,” and now ““Dogville.” These large-scale productions, scripted in English, flaunt their ambitious treatment of history, religion, and politics.

The second group includes “Medea,” the two-season mini-series “The Kingdom,” “The Idiots,” and “The Five Obstructio­ns.” These are modest films, spoken in Danish and, in the case of “The Kingdom” and “The Five Obstructio­ns,” made in collaboration with other directors and philosophically and stylistically experimental.

Having seen both “Dogville” and “The Five Obstructions” over the course of two days, I’m starting to think that von Trier is at his best when he shackles his desire to make grand statements.

“Dogville” takes place during the 1930s in the Rocky Mountain village of the same name. The town intellectual, Tom (Paul Bettany), lectures about morality and has pretensions of being a writer. One night, Tom hears gunshots in the valley below. Soon afterwards, he meets Grace (Nicole Kidman), a fugitive on the run from gangsters. The townspeople provide her sanctuary. In exchange, Grace spends an hour a day working for the residents. However, when the townspeople discover that there’s a price on her head, they demand more from Grace, until she eventually must flee from Dogville.

His trademark Dogme style–– aggressive handheld camera movement, jerky edits, washed-out color––has been copied so often that von Trier had no choice but to move on. There’s plenty of choppy camerawork in “Dogville,” but nothing that will leave the audience feeling seasick.

Von Trier experiments in other ways. The film is bluntly theatrical, shot on a nearly bare soundstage. Characters’ houses––and even a dog and two gooseberry trees––are mere markings on the ground. A few pieces of furniture are visible, but von Trier eschews obvious artifice. He also uses chapter headings––the film has nine, preceded by a prologue––and an omniscient narrator.

John Hurt’s voice-over initially seems gently ironic. In time, its snide contempt––he remarks that “[Tom’s house] in good times might almost have passed for presentable”––sinks in.

Without being very funny, “Dogville” feels like a black comedy. In Tom’s failure to live up to his ideals and ultimate ambivalence toward Grace, one can see von Trier’s attitudes towards his heroines. Accused of misogyny for his depiction of female martyrs in “Breaking the Waves,” “The Idiots,” and “Dancer in the Dark,” von Trier merely fans the fire in “Dogville.” Yet, though a victim, Grace eventually fights back against her degradation. I couldn’t quite escape the impression that von Trier’s treatment of Grace may have been a conscious self-parody.

As the actors and technicians’ names roll over “Dogville”’s closing credits, von Trier shows a procession of still photos of disenfranchised Americans. In case one doesn’t get the point, he’s set this sequence to David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” The film’s flaws are encapsulated here. By the end, hasn’t even the dimmest spectator figured out the politics of “Dogville?” The use of the music is ludicrously heavy-handed.

If “Dogville” is meant to be an allegory about America’s mistreatment of immigrants, von Trier erred in casting Kidman, an idealized fantasy figure if there ever were one. Even though she is not American, unlike the real-life photo subjects that bring down the curtain, she is young, white, and beautiful.

Von Trier’s fear of flying has kept him from ever visiting the U.S. and perhaps in his use of celebrities he is overcompensating in his effort to connect with American audiences. Like “Dogville,” “Dancer in the Dark” is also an intervention into American culture and politics. In that case, von Trier fronted an anti-death penalty film with the pop singer Bjork as a murder suspect.

Von Trier began working in English with his very first feature, “The Element of Crime.” But there’s something passé about his critique of American culture in “Dogville.” The dark underbelly girding the myth of rural benevolence and town meeting democracy and the challenges and hostility facing minorities and outsiders in that milieu have all been done to death. Attacking the American dream is facile. Imagining a decent alternative to it, rather than crafting a cynical revenge fantasy, takes more work than von Trier appears willing to do.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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