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With Dogville, director Lars von Trier has
demonstrably left behind the principles of Dogme 95, the ideas he set forth nearly
a decade ago with Thomas Vinterberg and others seeking to reform what they saw as the
stultified filmmaking of the day. No hand-held cameras here, shot on a soundstage rather
than on location, and accompanied by a soundtrack that includes Baroque music, Dogville
confirms that von Trier has abandoned his Dogme "Vow of Chastity."
There will inevitably be major controversy over the film when it opens widely in the U.S., an event the distributors seem to be delaying further with each passing week. However opinion comes down on its content, though, few will disagree that this is innovative and powerful work, a film that imprints itself on the consciousness and hauntingly lingers.
The three-hour parable, set in a washed-up Colorado mining town during the Depression, is played on a stage, bare except for a few benches, a window frame and the like, with floor markings to indicate the streets and buildings; the imprint of Our Town is apparent. Opening aerial shots taken from high above look directly down on the set, making it look like a map until the camera makes out moving images on the map that are actually people walking about the town. Once down on earth, there are no backdrops, only clear light background during the day, darkness when it is night. It is an almost claustrophobically contained environment, a place akin to that of Sartre's, the one with no exit, a hell on earth.
And von Trier tells a hellish story, precipitated by the arrival in town of a fugitive, Grace (Nicole Kidman). Under the leadership of Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), the townspeople agree to hide Grace, in return for which she will work for them. All goes well for a while and Tom and Grace fall in love. But when the police appear and hang a wanted poster marking Grace as a fugitive from the law, attitudes change and Grace is subjected to various expressions of disapproval, exploitation, and abuse.
From protected fugitive, Grace now becomes the victim of her protectors, each turning on her in more vicious ways, empowered by a mob mentality to unleash their individual frustrations on their now captive scapegoat. When escape is thwarted, the long arc of the plotline climaxes with Grace assuming the role of avenging angel.