When Dancer in the Dark came out in 2000, somebody made the mistake of telling Lars von Trier he shouldn't be making movies critical of the United States, since he hadn't even been there.
Lars von Trier makes the rules. He issues manifestos. He defines genres. He is always at the finger end of the puppet strings. Nobody tells him what he shouldn't do. Immediately, the Danish director--one of the guys behind cinema's influential Dogme 95 movement--decided to make more films set in the U.S. and never go there. Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman, is the second of these; he's now at work filming the third. (All three have been filmed in Sweden's Trollhättan, a.k.a. "Trollywood," current center of the Scandinavian film industry.)
In Dogville, von Trier (The Kingdom, Breaking the Waves) aims his X-ray eyes at a tiny, dead-end town in the Rockies and uncovers squirming horror behind its bumbling-hick facade. The story is a fairly simple one. Tom (Paul Bettany), who wants to be a writer, fancies himself the moral pathfinder of the small community of Dogville. He holds regular meetings instructing the townsfolk, who attend under some duress, on how they can improve themselves and their community. As the film opens, he has decided to conduct an experiment. In order to demonstrate his point that acceptance leads to a stronger community, Tom wants to offer the people of Dogville a gift, something completely unexpected, and let them learn to accept it. But where to find such a gift?
Enter Grace (Nicole Kidman). Tom finds her scurrying across town one night, fleeing gunshots. She's immensely tall and elegant in her rumpled, feather-lined coat and fancy dress; Tom is smitten. Here, he thinks, is the gift Dogville needs.
The townsfolk are predictably resistant to Grace's charms, but eventually she works her way into the community. That's when, as the titleboard says, "Dogville shows its teeth." Acceptance of the gift of Grace becomes entitlement and abuse. Tom, as conductor of the experiment, can only stand impotently by and watch as Grace is enslaved.
The film is stagey, its gimmicks pointed--much of the story is read in narration, and instead of buildings, the houses are represented by outlines on the black stage floor--but it works beautifully. A scene of violent sexual assault takes place inches away from scampering urchins and women baking cookies; they can't see through the invisible walls, but we can, and the act becomes infinitely more sordid "hidden" in the midst of ordinary town life.
Saying much more would ruin the film's astounding ending; it's enough to say that von Trier has once again invented his own moral code and compelled his characters to apply it unflinchingly to the brutal end.
Not RatedCinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 pm Friday-Thursday, April 23-29. Additional shows 10:30 pm Friday-Saturday, noon and 3:15 pm Saturday-Sunday.