Dogville, now out on DVD from Lions Gate Films, is certainly stylistically arresting. It is set in an isolated Rocky Mountain town. But instead of erecting a conventional set, von Trier has simply occupied a huge black soundstage on the floor of which he has painted outlines to indicate various buildings. There are some furnishings and a few other props. But even the town dog is just a drawing. I have absolutely no idea what any of this is supposed to mean, but I will say that it's a distraction. Every time a character opens a door that isn't there, we are pushed out of the film's story.
And that story is no comfortable matter either. First we meet Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), perhaps a reference to the inventor, perhaps another annoying quirk. Tom is an aspiring writer, although one who has never actually written anything. Nonetheless, he considers himself a deep thinker and dreams of literary glory. Tom feels he is superior to the 15 other adults who live in Dogville, and he thinks they need his guidance. Then fate provides him the opportunity to show them the light.
Shortly after we hear gunshots, a beautiful and frightened young woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman, who is memorably good despite the film's myriad aggravations) appears and announces that she's being pursued by gangsters. Tom wants to give her sanctuary in the town, but his fellow citizens are reluctant. They don't want to endanger themselves. And besides, they aren't sure they can trust her. What if she's a criminal and not a victim? So Tom proposes a compromise. Let Grace stay in the town for two weeks; then take a vote about her remaining longer. Glumly the townspeople agree. Tom takes Grace aside to give her the good news and proposes that she win their loyalty by volunteering to work about an hour a day for each family in the village. Grace throws herself into this arrangement with striking good cheer.
At first the Dogvillagers can't think of anything for her to do. But gradually they give her odd jobs and eventually come to rely on her services. She teaches the children of Vera (Patricia Clarkson), converses with the lonely blind man Jack (Ben Gazzara), cooks for the homeless teamster Ben (Zeljko Ivanek) even though it makes no sense that he's homeless because he's the only person in town with an income-producing job, cleans for the store owner Ginger (Lauren Bacall), plays checkers with the village idiot Bill (Jeremy Davies) and picks apples for the farmer Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard). So assisted, everybody thinks Grace is swell, and she's allowed to remain in the town indefinitely.
But then the sheriff shows up to declare Grace a missing person and deliver a lecture that if they know of her whereabouts they are morally and legally obligated to reveal them. This throws the villagers into a quandary. They consider themselves law-abiding people, and here Grace is asking them to break the law on her behalf. So they ask her to work twice as hard, as the price of their silence. Grace agrees with her characteristic optimism. So then Chuck rapes her because he's figured out that he can. That understandably makes Grace want to run away. But she's caught, put in chains, made to work harder yet and to serve as the town prostitute, servicing each of the Dogville males on an almost nightly basis.
Grace is demeaned by all this. But she refuses to hate the people of the town and clings to the notion that they are misguided rather than evil. And so we have the proposition out in the open. She's a Christ figure, suffering for the sins of humanity. If they will stop abusing her, they can redeem themselves in the forgiveness she stands ready to bestow on them. Now normally, I would find such a message appealing. But this film is so slow, pretentious and exasperating long (three hours!), that I was impatient even when its message seemed to be one I liked. Then James Caan shows up as the godfather (think of the implications of this) and wrestles Grace into a debate about the virtues of justice vs. those of mercy. And the end seems to belong to an entirely different movie. I usually want to give art films a lot of latitude. I wanted to take the DVD on which I saw this one and sail it out into the middle of Lake Pontchartrain.