You hear lots of people say that there's nothing like Lars von Trier's Dogville (which opens Friday, April 14, at the Harvard Exit), but that's nonsense. It is very like his first and only masterpiece, Breaking the Waves: a stern, perverse moral fable about a saintly young weirdo woman in a remote little burg sexually martyred by ugly thugs (chiefly the stone-faced Stellan Skarsgård). Both are punctuated by classic rock at its most portentous, infused with more angry sadism than The Passion of the Christ, and filmed in an original style as startling as a fist in the face. This time the girl gets even, because Dogville is inspired by the vengeful "Pirate Jenny" ballad from The Threepenny Opera. Accordingly, von Trier here shares Brecht's same sour compulsion to call attention to the artifice of story; his haughty, nasty urge to offend and reform the viewer by rubbing his or her nose in human evil; and the heroine's infinitely bitter vindictiveness.
In marked contrast with the LSD–like heightened realism of Waves, Dogville is dry, drained of color, narcotically numbed, a filmed stage play set on a flat black set, often shot from above to stress its fakeness. Stage lights play across it to suggest sunlight filtering through passing clouds, a spectral echo of the hulking thunderheads that menaced puny humans in Waves. The outlines of houses, shrubs, and one chained dog are inscribed in chalk on the stage, with real chairs, actors, and a few props minimally filling up a space that is all about the idea of emptiness.
In a voice dripping with the director's sarcastic contempt for humanity, narrator John Hurt informs us that this is a blighted Depression-era mining town whose mine is, like the townsfolk's souls, a depleted hole. People mostly sit or stand around in futile purgatorial gloom. Hurt is a pastiche of the narrator of Our Town—not the sentimental high-school-style production, but a still darker version of the grim, beyond-the-grave Spalding Gray production. The message of Our Town is the preciousness of life; the message here is that everybody deserves to die and is basically dead already (they're just too stubborn and stupid to know it). This is Thornton Wilder filtered through Kafka. And poisoned, too: Wilder loved the New Hampshire town he based his play on, while airplane-phobic von Trier, who has never been to America (let alone Colorado, where Dogville is set), knows just one thing—he loathes it.
Down Dogville's dead-end street flees a terrified blonde symbolically named Grace (Nicole Kidman), pursued by a shadowy Mr. Big in a plump-bumpered '30s-movie gangster car. Tom (Paul Bettany), the John-Boy Walton of Dogville, hides her in the mine and talks Dogville's dear hearts into welcoming Grace into their psycho community. Soon they find work for her: She helps an obsessive woman (Lauren Bacall, with her usual tangy sass) sweep her path; lessens the loneliness of a blind shut-in (Ben Gazzara); baby-sits for a stoically pietistic woman with too many children (Patricia Clarkson); relieves a sex-hating prig (Chloë Sevigny) of her scut work and the burden of being the focus of the local men's horny gazes; and helps the orchard owner (Skarsgård) harvest apples.
Bad move! The apple man becomes her first rapist. When the sheriff posts a reward for Grace's capture on a trumped-up robbery charge—she who gives her all selflessly to all who ask!—the townsfolk repay her by doubling her workload. They figure she owes them, since now she has no place else to go. Soon everybody's vicious to her; the men sneak in nightly to rape her, creepily inventing self-justifications. Even Tom, her savior, turns against her, while doggedly insisting he's still on her side. When she makes an escape attempt, the movie has her don dog collar and drag a metal weight around. This sort of subtle gesture is what's known as "the von Trier touch."
Throughout her slo-mo ordeal, Kidman remains saintly. Her performance isn't so searing as Emily Watson's name-making Waves debut; it's shiny, stylized, chillier even than her psycho-killer role in To Die For, yet too dull to be so dazzling. The Brechtian influence keeps us at a distance from her suffering. This movie never drags you in and down into Grace's soul. The only relief from stasis is the gradual revelation of the malevolently selfish motives of each Dogvilleian. This is superbly done by one of the most talented casts in recent memory. Each character is etched in purest acid.
Yet all are pallid symbols, and it takes three hours to sketch out the foregone conclusion of their respective degradations. Even the surprise violent ending packs little dramatic punch: Like everything in the film, it seems distant, viewed through the wrong end of a cold telescope. You haven't seen anything remotely like Dogville—as long as you're ignorant of some of the most overexposed plays in the stage repertoire. But what was experimental in Brecht's 1928 and Wilder's 1938 is old news now.