Dogville: Our Town as Dystopia 

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Dogville (2003)
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Friday, August 31, and Sunday, September 2, at Film Society of Lincoln Center's "50 Years of the New York Film Festival."

In this blistering moral fable by Lars Von Trier, a spoiled young woman flees her gangster daddy only to fall prey to Depression-era small-town America. If we are alone in the world, the riches-to-rags Grace is doubly so; she denounces power and privilege, and so becomes easy prey. As the town folks begin to feel at risk sheltering her, they channel their resentment by turning her into an abject slave, running the gamut of psychological, sexual and physical abuse.

The stark, claustrophobic studio set, where buildings are suggested by chalk outlines, produces chilling effects, such as when Grace is raped in seclusion, but since there are no actual walls, the whole town seems to know, and not care. Von Trier’s dramatic technique may be Brechtian, in turns coolly analytical and sardonic, but Grace is not: at first as sentimental as Tom, the amateur philosopher who uses her to test his ideas on charity, she is pathetic in her martyrdom. Grace seems to believe that the evil inflicted on her results from people’s weakness, and so must be forgiven and endured, a moral verdict she then reverses, opting to annihilate the village in a godlike gesture. Nicole Kidman's Grace is a pouty anemic up to this point, yet her self-awareness suggests that she knows she was putting on an act, accepting ugliness as beauty, and apathy as strength.

In spite of incongruities, Von Trier’s evisceration of enlightened humanism can feel refreshing. Nor is he wrong to point the finger at America as prone to moral exceptionalism. And while his Nietzschean impulse to demask virtue as self-interest stops short of generating fully fleshed characters, his sly humor and touches of lyricism make for addictive, if often creepy, viewing.

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