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Dogville and Mean Girls vie for darkest picture of human nature

click to enlarge GRACE UNDER PRESSURE: Nicole Kidman plays - Grace, a fugitive preyed upon good honest folks" - of Dogville when she seek refuge there. - ROLF KONOW
GRACE UNDER PRESSURE: Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a fugitive preyed upon good honest folks" of Dogville when she seek refuge there.

The dogs that we hear yapping throughout Lars von Trier's Dogville are seen only as two-dimensional chalk outlines sketched on a bare floor. But their bite is every bit as real as their bark.

And to practically no one's surprise, the real dogs of Dogville — the ones with the sharpest teeth of all — turn out to be the humans.

In the dog-eat-dog world of Dogville, it's a tossup as to what's worse: the things you don't see coming or what's right there in front of your face. As with most of von Trier's films (Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves), Dogville takes a distinctly Hobbesian view of life and then pounds it home in ways both nasty and brutish, although not terribly short. The movie clocks in at very close to three hours, making for an experience that's both grueling and, in its way, glorious.

Any way you look at it, Von Trier's film is a devastating indictment of human nature — but, incredibly enough, it may not be the most devastating one hitting movie theaters this week. That dubious honor might just go to a little teen-oriented comedy that, if there's any justice in this world, will soon be ruling the megaplexes. But more on that later.

As for Dogville, it's about as far from a teen comedy as you'll get. Von Trier's densely constructed, three-hour opus is an audacious act of cinematic subversion, one bound to thoroughly alienate a great many of those drawn in by the film's buzz or by the big names featured in its amazing ensemble cast (Nicole Kidman! Ben Gazzara! James Caan! Lauren Bacall, for God's sake!).

Make no mistake, though: Dogville is a full-blown, high-concept manifesto, and one of the most difficult, demanding and potentially off-putting films ever to be shown in an American megaplex. It is also, I think, an altogether amazing work of art — at least for the first two and a half of its three-hour running time.

The movie tells us right up front that it takes place during "wicked times," which presumably means the Great Depression of the 1930s (although pretty much every time and place in a von Trier film qualifies as a Great Depression of some sort). The story is set in motion when a beautiful and mysterious fugitive named Grace (Kidman) wanders into the sleepy, little Rocky Mountain township of Dogville and encounters what the film tells us are the "good honest folks" who live there.

There are no actual quotation marks surrounding the words "good honest folks," but there may as well be, what with all the irony dripping. The inhabitants of Dogville turn out to include hypocrites and sadists of all stripes, guilt-ridden whoremongers and mutually loathing couples burdened with too many kids, too little money, and a paralyzing fear of the world. No one ever leaves the town and everyone is basically just waiting for a chance to exploit someone else, all of which feeds into what von Trier apparently wants to tell us about greedy, provincial Americans. More of that later, too.

Still, most of these people seem nice enough at first. Grace and the town adopt one another, and the pretty stranger soon begins helping out to earn her keep, getting her delicate, alabaster hands dirty by doing various odd jobs and good deeds for the locals. There's an oddly formal but seemingly benign quality to the arrangement, but it eventually turns ugly. Very ugly.

As the townsfolk become increasingly aware of Grace's value (she's a wanted woman on the lam from both cops and crooks), everyone starts demanding more from her. Eventually, she goes from being the community's nurturing sister/mother figure to its scapegoat, whore and slave. In the end, Grace's fall is complete, reducing her to little more than an object upon which the entire town freely enacts its most debasing sadomasochistic fantasies.

Dogville is tough viewing, without a doubt, but it's also further proof that von Trier, who is certainly among the cinema's most provocative and perverse artists, might also be one of its true visionaries. The director reportedly refers to Dogville as "filmed theater," but anti-theater seems closer to the mark. The entire movie is performed on what appears to be a sound stage, a bare-bones set composed of nothing but chalk marks sketched on the floor and a handful of props to indicate what we're supposed to imagine existing there. An old bed or a chair represents somebody's house, a small tree stands in for an entire apple orchard, and the whole town simply ends where the stage fades into darkness.

It's as if nothing exists outside of Dogville and the endless void in which it floats — sort of like that vacuum-packed village created by little Billy Mummy in that old Twilight Zone episode (the one where human-headed jack-in-the-boxes get wished to the cornfield). Or maybe it's a high school production of Our Town staged in Hell. I've got your microcosm right here on the screen, baby, von Trier seems to be sneering, so don't even think about looking anywhere else for answers. There are no higher powers or significant outside influences in the world of Dogville. What you see is what you get.

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