Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Dogville is one of those rare films which really does have something to say about human behaviour."

Before entering the isolated Rocky Mountain town of Dogville, be warned: Lars von Trier's latest offering is not only an accomplished piece of storytelling, it is a film made as art, with things to say about the nature of the medium, and people unwilling to entertain such devices would be better to stay behind. A number of critics have already found themselves unable to get past the theatricality of the piece. Some would see its self-conscious presentation - filmed on a single sound stage, with chalk outlines replacing the walls of houses so that the audience can often see all the characters at once - as pretentious.

Von Trier has commented that he was interested in exploring the potential of filmed theatre. His technique here contributes to the sense of intimacy within the Dogville community, and the pared down visuals encourage the viewer to concentrate on the characters. Most of the actors have done theatre work before, but there is no staginess about their behaviour; in fact, it's very easy to forget the strangeness of the setting and find oneself drawn in by their compelling story.

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This story is essentially a morality tale, an exploration of moral duties to the self and others; it is also very much a film about the character of America, though this doesn't really hit home until the last few scenes. Set during the Depression, it explores the extremes to which people are forced and also the extremes which they choose. It's a film about power in which no one entirely escapes corruption, but it starts off like a fairy tale, and the corruption develops so subtly that we never lose our awareness of the people of Dogville as human beings.

At the centre of the story is Tom (Paul Bettany), a young would-be writer living off his father's pension, who has made it his mission to understand human nature through the observation and interrogation of his neighbours. He wishes to illustrate the difficulty a closed community has with receiving, and is looking for an example when the beautiful fugitive Grace (Nicole Kidman) stumbles into town, apparently on the run from gangsters. Grace offers her services to the townspeople in exchange for sanctuary. At first, this involves simple manual labour; but when the police take an interest, her employers start to demand a higher price, and her goodwill places her in an increasingly vulnerable position.

Kidman famously walked out of the premiere of this film because she couldn't face watching some of the later scenes over again. There is no blood and gore on show here, but real psychological ugliness, and it's clear from watching her performance that she became deeply involved with her character. Grace has a secret on which the detail of that remarkable performance hinges. In ceasing to think of her as a human being, the people of Dogville lose their awareness of her potential, a dangerous mistake.

There are a host of good performances on show here, from an accomplished cast. Each of the 17 adult characters is fully realised through the combination of powerful acting and an incisive script. Dogville is one of those rare films which really does have something to say about human behaviour; which, if you let it, can make you think. Technically superb and unexpectedly involving, it's a first class piece of cinema, and highly recommended.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2009
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A beautiful fugitive hides out in a Rocky Mountain village.
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Read more Dogville reviews:

Chris *****
Angus Wolfe Murray ****

Director: Lars Von Trier

Writer: Lars Von Trier

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgard, Chloe Sevigny, Ben Gazzara, Patricia Clarkson, Harriet Anderson, Lauren Bacall, Jeremy Davies, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Blair Brown, Philip Baker Hall, Zeljko Ivanek, Miles Purinton, James Caan, the voice of J

Year: 2003

Runtime: 178 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Denmark, Sweden, France, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, US, UK


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