Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.
Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands/France/Germany/United Kingdom/Italy, 2005. Zentropa Entertainments, Isabella Films B.V., Manderlay, Sigma Films, Memfis Film, Ognon Pictures, Pain Unlimited GmbH Filmproduktion, Edith Film Oy, Invicta Capital, Film i Vast, Danmarks Radio, Arte France Cinema, Sveriges Television, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, ARTE, Nederlandse Programma Stichting, YLE Co-Productions, Canal+, Canal Television AB, Degeto Film, Alan Young Pictures. Screenplay by Lars von Trier. Cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle. Produced by Vibeke Windelov. Music by Joachim Holbek. Production Design by Peter Grant. Costume Design by Manon Rasmussen. Film Editing by Molly Marlene Stensgaard. Cannes Film Festival 2005. Toronto International Film Festival 2005.
Lars von Trier’s proposed trilogy of observations of American society starts out strong with Dogville but moves on to a much less interesting second chapter (the third has yet to be produced at the time of this review). Forced to drop out of the project because of conflicting commitments, Nicole Kidman is replaced by a colourless Bryce Dallas Howard in the lead role, picking up immediately following her leaving the town of the previous film. On the road to a new life with her father (Willem Dafoe replacing James Caan), Howard is stopped in front of a southern plantation where a woman runs out and screams that a man is being whipped. Howard enters and discovers, to her horror, that despite it being 1930, slavery is still being practiced at this stately home and, following the death of its matriarch (Lauren Bacall) she takes over running the place and restoring it to the modern world. Howard has her ideals of giving freedom to the estate’s residents tarnished very quickly when she learns that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the vacuum created by the sudden absence of the previous power structure meaning that she has to focus on the personal conflicts that are suddenly her responsibility to resolve. It’s a smart idea in theory, but von Trier seems to think that his very basic understanding of race relations in the last century of American politics is a secret he discovered before everyone else, and there’s nothing too clever about what he uncovers here: the disillusionment of a well-meaning but ultimately patronizing and naive white person isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind. Add to that the general lack of sympathy engendered by Howard, who is a talented but impenetrable actor whose downfall is not as tragic as Kidman’s would have been, and you have a small idea spread out over far too long a movie. Like Dogville, this one was also filmed on a closed set with the locations drawn on a floor, photographed effectively and contributing to the concentration on performance and dialogue.