Friday, April 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Inhumanity of 'Dogville' is nearly unwatchable

Seattle Times movie critic

When I first saw Lars von Trier's "Dogville" at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, the screening was frequently punctuated by the muffled noise of theater seats slamming into their upright position as audience members walked out. It's a punishing film to sit through, and its rewards may well depend on how much credit you wish to give von Trier for doing something different. Because, for better or worse, "Dogville" is unlike anything else you'll see on screens this year.

But it's very much like several of von Trier's previous films, in one particular aspect: the prolonged humiliation of its heroine. (The bad-boy Danish director has been making films for 20 years, including a lengthy involvement with the Dogme 95 movement, which railed against artificiality in film.) Nicole Kidman here becomes the latest in von Trier's line of shining-eyed, victimized waifs, behind Emily Watson in "Breaking the Waves" and Björk in "Dancer in the Dark." As Grace, a fugitive who arrives in the small Rocky Mountain town of Dogville, Kidman is repeatedly raped, made to wear a metal dog collar (attached to a heavy wheel, to keep her captive) and subjected to other abuses.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Dogville," with Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, Chloë Sevigny, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård. Written and directed by Lars von Trier. 177 minutes. Rated R for violence and sexual content. Harvard Exit.

All this is in service to a ponderous plot that ultimately seems to be making a statement about the dehumanizing, soul-deadening effects of poverty and the cruelty that an insulated community can inflict on an outsider. But any possible message (though pounded home with a deafening thud over the end credits — a montage of photographs of impoverished men, women and children, accompanied by David Bowie's "Young Americans") gets lost in the sheer tedium of the filmmaking, as do the valiant efforts of many of the actors. (In the large supporting cast, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall and Patricia Clarkson have some vivid moments; some other cast members seem to be sleepwalking their way through the film — or have been directed that way.)

Stylistically, "Dogville" resembles nothing so much as Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" gone berserk. It's performed on a bare set, with chalk-mark outlines to indicate walls and streets, and the actors must go through elaborate pantomime when opening and shutting doors that aren't there. Costumes indicate the Depression era, but few props are used. John Hurt, speaking in the unhurried and ever-so-slightly condescending tones of a bored university lecturer, serves as narrator, introducing us to Dogville and its citizens, who first greet Grace with wary acceptance but eventually turn on her.

Unfolding in nine chapters and a prologue, "Dogville" tells its tale over three very long, lugubrious hours, accompanied by a score that sounds right out of "Masterpiece Theatre." But there isn't much to tell, and the stylistic innovations wear thin quickly — Dogville the town looks like a very odd board game. And as Grace is increasingly punished, so are we; there's little humanity on display here, either toward the characters or toward the audience.

What remains in the memory afterward — other than a nagging sense that perhaps time had stood still — are a few undeniably lovely shots (in one of several filmed from overhead, milkweed floats gently through the air like snow) and an achingly vulnerable performance by Kidman. She uses a tiny, whispery voice that gets more raspy as the drama drags on; her kitty-cat beauty here has a ravaged quality to it. As she glides through the quiet streets, almost shrinking inside her long, fur-collared black coat, she's this haunted town's regal ghost. By the end, as Grace is transformed, you believe that she's been through an ordeal. Unfortunately, so have we.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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