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Lars Von Trier: Tale of cruelty and revenge
LARS VON Trier may have made some exceptionally innovative cinema, but the Danish director's name at once conjures up the image of a man steeped in a phobia. He is said to be paranoid about flying. So, he hardly travels, and when he does, it is by road or rail.
When the auteur announced just before the 2003 Cannes International Film Festival that he would be there with his latest creative effort, "Dogville", there was a sense of wariness.
Well, the man was there, all right, and after the initial curiosity about and debate over his mode of conveyance, the focus shifted to his movie. Which, he said, was made as a protest against the criticism he faced in 2000. Cannes had honoured him that year with the top Golden Palm for his controversial-dig-at-the-U.S.-judicial-system "Dancer in the Dark".
``When I came to Cannes last time, some American critics had ridiculed me for making a film about the U.S. without ever having been there. This provoked me. As far as I can recall, they never went to Casablanca when they made `Casablanca'. I thought it was unfair, so I decided then and there that I would make more movies that take place in America''.
"Dogville" is set there, in a rural town, in the 1930s. But Von Trier was driven by one other important consideration to make this year's Cannes competition entry, "Dogville". His love of theatre.
``My film's strong unconventional style has been inspired particularly by Brecht, and perhaps, surprisingly, the televised theatre common in the 1970s...Oh, I miss theatre on television'', Von Trier told journalists during a round-table meet.
``This form of entertainment was very popular when I was young. They would take a play and place it in other surroundings, or make it very abstract. I am not so crazy about theatre in the theatre, but on television or the screen. It is really something I want to see.''
"Dogville" , true to this, is studio-bound. Von Trier marks out a huge space on the ground with white lines to show the homes of different people or shops. He uses very few props, but the experiment works, and works marvellously.
At three-hours long, "Dogville" is a riveting piece of drama with not a dull moment. The movie has enough meat, divided into a prologue and nine chapters, to sustain the attention of even a diehard critic.
This proves — or indicates — that cinema is essentially a story-telling medium. You must have a good tale to begin with. Script, direction, technique and acting are heavily dependent on the story, and the age-old argument about content-vs-form is often a meaningless exercise indulged in by those who either do not have a good theme or do not care to find one.
Here is what "Dogville" narrates. Essentially a tale of cruelty and revenge, it involves Grace (Nicole Kidman), who escapes from gangsters and arrives at Dogville. Its insular community agrees to hide her, and Grace in return wants to help out. However, when the gangsters' search for her intensifies, the townsfolk take advantage of her. The men rape her at will, and the women bind her down to backbreaking work. "Dogville" ends on a note of shock.
One may personally not agree with the way the Danish helmer steers his film or ends it, but it is undoubtedly an exceptional piece of celluloid with all the characteristics of a Von Trier work. One of them is the brutalisation of women. Grace bears a strong similarity to Bess in "Breaking the Waves" and Selma in "Dancer in the Dark".
While a strange sense of religiousness and fidelity pushes Bess to the precipice, Selma's obsessive love for her son leads to a supreme sacrifice. Bess and Selma personify the image of sorrow and sadism, features apparent in Grace, and all three women convey an impression that Von Trier martyrs the fairer sex.
``I understand that people might interpret this as martyring women, but I would say that these characters are not so much females as they are part of me'', Von Trier explained. ``It is very interesting to work with women. I think they portray me in a good way and I can relate to them. There are some who think that I do not like them, but this is not true. I have problems with men.''
Admittedly, the auteur has drawn superb performances from Emily Watson as Bess and Bjork as Selma. Kidman was the disappointing of the three, though Von Trier averred that he wrote the part especially for her, because she wanted to work with him. ``It intrigued me to pick a Hollywood star and put her in a feature like `Dogville'. Probably, Nicole might attract a different kind of audience than what a work of mine would have ordinarily done''.
However, Kidman is not a distraction in "Dogville", which in the course of the Festival lent itself to a variety of interpretations.
Here is one, a rather classic one at that: ``After critiquing the death penalty in `Dancer in the Dark', Von Trier dispenses it in `Dogville', an artistically experimental, ideologically apocalyptic blast at American values that is as obvious in intent as it is murky in aesthetic achievement.
The Danish helmer has a lot of issues he is working out — about the U.S., power, arrogance, grace, mercy, forgiveness, revenge, truth and passing judgment, just for starters — and the way he chews them up and spits them out is, as always, deliberately designed to provoke.''
One agrees with this, and this is what makes for great cinema.
But confronted with this view, Von Trier merely smiled and quipped: ``This is a story that can happen in any small town.'' Of course, it can, but one is left with a nagging suspicion that Lars Von Trier was a trifle hesitant about running down America beyond a point.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated July 4 2003)