Top Ten List: #9 of 2003 (world premieres)
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Director: Lars von Trier. Cast: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård, Lauren Bacall, Blair Brown, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Zeljko Ivanek, Cleo King, Chloë Sevigny, Harriet Andersson, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, Miles Purinton, Bill Raymond, Shauna Shim, voice of John Hurt. Screenplay: Lars von Trier.

Twentynine Palms
Director: Bruno Dumont. Cast: David Wissak, Katerina Golubeva. Screenplay: Bruno Dumont.

Take it from me that three hours of Lars von Trier's Dogville immediately followed by two hours of Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms constitutes a highly revealing and provocative double-feature. Don't necessarily try this at home, though, because both directors are well-known for their challenging, patience-testing visions, often punctuated (as they are here) by appalling acts of sadism and scenes of suffering. Each of the new films clearly deserves, even requires, several hours of autonomous contemplation, and I was reluctant to fit them in back-to-back. However, I've been waiting hungrily for Dogville for over a year now, ever since its hot, divisive reception at Cannes 2003; actually, you could say I've been desperate to see this film since von Trier's last film, 2000's Dancer in the Dark, blew me away all four times I saw it in the cinema and leapt right into the middle of my all-time top 100 list. The platform release of Dogville still hasn't brought it to Ithaca, and in a recent afternoon layover in New York City, I simply couldn't pass it up. Twentynine Palms, which is unlikely to bow in Ithaca for the better part of a year, was an even rarer opportunity, nicely showcased on the big screen of the great Cinema Village theater on East 12th Street.

One interesting dimension of being a film lover is how impatient you can get to see something that inevitably makes you feel awful. In a different sense, this very idea is what Dogville and Twentynine Palms are about, which is part of the reason why they make such strong companion pieces. Both movies represent their European directors' excoriating visions of contemporary America, not through any direct address of the present political morass but through a bold spelunk into the bottomlessness of modern (im)morality. In fairness, neither movie pitches its central problem as inherently or strictly American, and there is heavy allegorical weight, though differently imagined in the two pictures, applied to their stories of malignant relationships. It is also true that neither picture naturalizes its protagonists within their environments, so we can't decisively ascertain whether they ran into trouble or brought it with them as psychic luggage. Dogville's Grace (Nicole Kidman) is a willowy wayfarer hiding from gangsters in a Rocky Mountain township, the character's glamorous incongruity only highlighted by Kidman's brave intrusion into an ensemble of brilliant character actors, plus Jeremy Davies. Twentynine Palms' David and Katia (David Wissak and Katerina Golubeva) are, respectively, a Californian photographer and his French-speaking girlfriend, location scouting for some unspecified purpose (a wedding? a film shoot?) in the barren deserts of California. Katia speaks French with the same Slavic intonations and syntactical gaffes familiar from Golubeva's appearances in Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep and Léos Carax's Pola X; as in the Carax picture, Golubeva serves Twentynine Palms almost as a free-floating signifier of foreignness, her fathomless mood-swings and odd pronunciations and showstoppingly moonish face unattributable to any particular cultural origin. (Golubeva herself is Lithuanian.)

Because the cultural politics of both films are so ferocious and controversial, we need to attend to these nuances without letting them distract us too much from the core ideas, reductively but not inexplicably touted as "anti-American" in a variety of published critiques. In von Trier's case, Dogville is hardly the first time he has shown us something about communal prejudice—community is almost unthinkable in his movies without the framework of prejudice—by importing a foreigner into a hermetic social landscape that seems tolerant for a while before the seven deadly sins start eating away at everyone. (Greed, lust, and wrath are often the sins of choice). The American naïf working in post-Nazi Germany in Zentropa, the Nordic oil-rig worker and his social-outcast wife in Breaking the Waves' Scottish enclave, and the disabled Czech factory worker in the Pacific Northwest in Dancer in the Dark all serve as emblems of the imperiled expatriate, living and (more to the point) working in communities badly in need of their labor and who for that very reason resent their presence profoundly. Even von Trier's Medea is an important instance of the same pattern, since Medea is, among so many other things, a royal citizen of Colchis hauled off to Jason's homeland and, as payment for all of her invaluable aid as well as her love, promptly shunted aside.

Dogville reprises this favored motif of the abused outsider, though in a rare move for von Trier, Grace is actually of the same nationality as the residents of Dogville. Xenophobia is so thick in this film that simply being from another town is a harsh stigma, though Grace, like Katia in Twentynine Palms, isn't specifically from anywhere; as opposed to her parallel figures in Waves or Dancer, Grace is actually invested in concealing where she's from, whom she's hiding from, and why. She is by far the most cunning of von Trier's recent heroines. Whereas Emily Watson's Bess kept mum about her shocking series of sexual adventures, and Björk's Selma aggravated some audiences for staying quiet about the self-acquitting facts of her case, even at the point when her silence clearly leads to her own death, both films treated the women's reticence as an indicator of either Christian martyrdom or incipient madness. In either case, Bess and Selma were off the hook, ethically, in a way that Grace isn't. Grace's enigmatic otherness is not just a suspicious and hostile projection by her community, though it is that; it is also a conscious, preserved choice, indicative of some agenda or other, which should count as an early sign that Dogville won't exactly repeat the abject self-sacrifices of the last two films.

Indeed, when Grace, having survived a long spell of the township's cruelty, eventually winds up in a position to avenge herself, it's the first time that she can really be considered the protagonist of the piece. True, it is her mysterious nighttime arrival that precipitates the main action of Dogville, and it is her relationships to the various citizens of the town that occupy the most screen time. But in many ways, the central, catalyzing figure of Dogville is Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), an aspiring writer and park-bench philosopher who has styled himself as the town's public conscience. Dogville is largely secularized, creating a vacuum of leadership into which Tom has clearly insinuated himself—the church is used only for Tom's lectures, for public meetings (i.e., more of Tom's lectures), and for the occasional plebiscite, as when the citizens vote to allow Grace asylum from the natty goons who are trying to track her down. The opening Prologue clearly sets up Tom as the main character, and more than that, it makes clear that he is already on the prowl for tangible proof of his unpopular ideas that compassion is dead in Dogville, that physical isolation and economic hardship have led to moral isolationism.

So, while Grace's arrival might unsettle the rest of the townspeople, who value a cloistered sense of privacy that is belied by von Trier's "set"—a bare slate-colored stage whose walls, buildings, streets, and natural features are indicated largely by chalk outlines—her appearance couldn't be better-timed or more propitious for Tom's purposes. It's easy to see the narrative in terms of his use of Grace, trotting her out as a living vessel for his abstract concepts, relentlessly idealizing her and imagining he has fallen in love. This idealization continues unabated even when Grace's honeymoon in Dogville is over and the citizens start taking advantage of her kindness, her energy, and her body. Grace suffers terribly in Dogville, and because this, too, fits Tom's hypothesis that people have lost the knack for compassion, he doesn't intercede. He even appropriates Grace's suffering as his own, as though he hates to be proven right in his philosophical speculations. All of this puts Tom square in the tradition of American literary figures like The Scarlet Letter's Arthur Dimmesdale, The House of Mirth's Lawrence Selden, and The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway, high-minded idiots who are infected by the same moral inadequacies as those whom they presume to judge, and who gloss the predicaments of the women in their midst by sentimentalizing them as figures of beauty, so as to dwell instead, and quite indulgently, on their own internal debates. Of course, cinema itself, especially in America, could fairly be accused of sentimentalizing and specularizing women while attributing real weight to the problems and thoughts of men; the fact that Tom Edison is named after a father of cinema technology shouldn't go overlooked.

More immediately, however, the psychological terrain of Dogville is complicated and expansive, and though von Trier seems perpetually prone to borrowing images and ideas from stories that have inspired him (there's some Thornton Wilder in Dogville, some Dürrenmatt, some Brecht, some Euripides, some Cinderella), his stylistic brio is enough to bring off even the repetitious or clichéd passages. It also helps that he is a whiz at casting and even better at directing actors. For a movie with such bold visual designs and high-flown rhetorical ambitions, it seems almost reactionary to say that it works because the performances are so good. But there you go. Kidman is really exceptional here, more than compensating for her frankly unbelievable turn in The Human Stain and her frankly annoying one in Cold Mountain. Much ink has been spilled over the rough treatment she got from von Trier, which I'm not inclined to doubt; at the same time, her career is proof that Kidman generates her most interesting work for directors who aren't teddy bears. Jane Campion made her audition, Stanley Kubrick kept her filming for almost two years, Baz Luhrmann left her with a broken rib and a bum knee, and who knows what von Trier got up to, besides extracting the most recent of her four best performances. (By contrast, Anthony Minghella seemed willing to hand Cold Mountain to her on a silver platter, and she seemed bored and frosted-over by all the attention.) Paul Bettany, whose career I'd thought would have drowned long ago from the overhype of the Beautiful Mind era, is disciplined and smart in telegraphing Tom's treacheries. It's very hard to play a rotten character who talks, walks, and thinks like a lamb, especially without ironizing or ridiculing the role, but Bettany pulls it off, rather terrifically.

The surrounding ensemble is an embarrassment of riches, almost too much so, because we don't spend nearly as much time with anyone else as we might like. (In this, the cast reproduces the dichotomy wrought by the whole film: their characterizations are so mesmerically upsetting that you want to keep watching.) Blair Brown finds such exquisite, subtle mannerisms for her role as a glass-cutter's wife that we wish she caught von Trier's eye more often; Harriet Andersson, conceivably the greatest actress from the old Bergman repertory, is little more than a walk-on as Lauren Bacall's sidekick. The men do a little better, especially because the story's increasing focus on sexual exploitation gives all of them, to put it crassly, a turn in the spotlight. Stellan Skarsgård and Ben Gazzara do particularly detailed work, and James Caan, a late arrival in a pivotal role, reignites the movie.

And by that point, the film needs a little reigniting, because the third hour of Dogville doesn't quite cohere, or else fails to do so in a textured, illuminating way. I often have this experience of von Trier films, Dancer excepted: there is so much to look at and to listen to, so many bold performances and such impressive momentum in the storytelling that it's hard to tell exactly when the story gets dead-ended, with only glib resolution or no resolution left as alternatives. Breaking the Waves was his worst instance of home-stretch collapse; especially after watching Katrin Cartlidge blow the top off of male complacency in her final scene, those celestial bells could not have been more unwelcome or more obscure. Dogville doesn't undercut itself in quite the same fashion, but in making the brave choice to re-empower the Kidman character, it also consigns her to the kind of narcissistic abstraction that has been synonymous with power throughout the movie. As ironies go, this isn't a feeble one but it's a little obvious, and more than that, the picture doesn't handle it very confidently: the movie suddenly feels talky, highfalutin. On the one hand, Dogville seems to articulate its own themes a little too directly, as though doubtful that the audience has paid proper attention or sufficiently valued the seriousness of the spectacle; on the other, though the end is harrowing, it's a bit of a catch-all, testing the limits of logic even by a fable's standards and responding more, it seems, to some unspoken obligation to go out with a bang. The credits sequence, in which David Bowie's angry "Young Americans" plays out over a series of photographs linking Depression-era misery to more latter-day violations of justice, is the most petulant gesture in the film, further limiting our impulse to give von Trier the benefit of the doubt. If it looks like a rant and sounds like a rant...

Bruno Dumont is less of a ranter than von Trier, though his insistence on long takes and ornery, humiliated characters often feels like provocation. Rarely has a Cannes jury been so drubbed as in 1999, when Dumont's L'Humanité claimed both acting awards and the runner-up prize for Best Film. Especially with that bubbly, clown-colored All About My Mother in competition, L'Humanité looked even more dour than it would anyway. Its opening shots include close-ups of a murdered girl's pre-pubescent vagina and a man lying down in a manure-fertilized field. The man, we learn, is the local police supervisor, half-trying to solve the girl's murder but unable to muster the energy. He's perpetually stuck in a fog, perhaps metaphysical (what kind of world allows young girls to die so horribly?) and perhaps debased (why can't he get laid?). The dude hardly speaks, so we never find out, and when the killer basically appears at his feet at the end of 148 minutes, the catatonia barely lifts.

Twentynine Palms is cut from the same cloth, with even fewer embellishments. The central couple, virtually the only people in the film, endure each other through a hot, uncomfortable road trip in a shit-colored Hummer, stopping every now and then for an uncomfortable foray into the landscape, an uncomfortably public argument in a restaurant or an intersection, or an uncomfortably intimate argument in a motel room or a swimming pool. They also have a fair amount of sex, which sounds and looks uncomfortable; his orgasms are only slightly more unnerving than hers. We eventually grasp that carnality for these two is a means of forestalling more arguments, or for settling them: when Katia sees David getting riled up about her refusal to sustain a conversation, it's a good cue to shut him up with some bumptious lovin'. When she goes ballistic after David appears to have killed a dog with his truck, only to discover she has misunderstood and overreacted, she atones with a vigorous blowjob. David Wissak's scrotum gets more screen time in Twentynine Palms than Harriet Andersson does in Dogville, which seems like an injustice but adequately evokes the difference in texture between the two films.

As in Dogville, it is not perfectly clear whether Twentynine Palms is offering itself as a microcosmic vision for America or for the human condition as a whole, though the strategic minimalisms of both films make clear that they aren't just any old anecdote. The vanished set of Dogville universalizes the action even as it viciously exposes the lie of the town's know-nothing attitudes. By contrast, the locations of Twentynine Palms are its most ornate feature: rocky outcroppings, arid plains, concrete strips, and cinderblock motels preside over long, still shots, establishing little except their own momentous, dispassionate existence. Instead, it is psychology and backstory, the bread and butter of films like Dogville, that are excised almost totally from Twentynine Palms. The character's bodies become as familiar and topographized to us as the physical environments, which is partly how Dumont inclines us to read each as a symbol of the other: the barren land and the barren people in it. Jean Genet wrote that "much has been said of the effect of landscape upon the feelings, but not, it seems to me, of the way it acts upon moral attitudes"; the sterilization of David and Katia's regard for each other, which only gets worse as they inhabit tougher terrain and bleaker interiors, seems like Dumont's working-out of Genet's proposition. The dissipation extends to the character of the duo's dialogue, itself broken and impoverished. When a motel sign reads "Daily. Nightly. King Size. Pool. TV," it sounds like something Katia or David would say, and probably isn't too far off Dumont's shooting script, either.

David and Katia's couplings start to feel incestuous because there's literally no one else around; when three boisterous kids stumble upon one of their swimming-pool liaisons, the event has the impact of an extra-terrestrial landing. Gradually, as we notice that nearly every vehicle in the movie is a pickup or an SUV, hulking past each other like mobile fortresses, with verbal abuses lobbed anonymously between drivers, we realize that this is not a chronicle of any exceptional experience so much as Dumont's version of social life, such as it is. As opposed to Gus Van Sant's related Gerry, where the two men's isolation is a contextualized effect of their decision to hunt down the ever-elusive Thing, David and Katia's experience is just as self-contained when they head back into town as when they hike around the Sierra Nevadas. When a waitress serves them at an ice-cream parlor, her head doesn't even make it into the shot, and even the peripheral visions of other people that sneak into the movie (a suspiciously cruising car, the unsupervised poolboys) look just as isolated and desolate as David and Katia's. When this changes, and David and Katia actually cross paths with other people, the effects are disastrous.

Chantal Akerman or Catherine Breillat could easily have made Twentynine Palms, and it's interesting to me that if they had, the movie would certainly have been taken as an essay on specifically sexual alienation. To describe David's sexuality as rapacious is not really a metaphor, nor, by the end of Twentynine Palms, does it make him unique. The line he (or the film) ultimately draws between miseries David will tolerate and ones he won't has at least a proximate connection to his notions of sex, though you've no sooner framed the thought than you're inclined to reject it as simplification. Bruno Dumont was a Hobbesian philosopher before he was a filmmaker, and from that point of view, the dastardly, violent self-interest of people need not be understood through any particular prism: sex, gender, race, class. There is so much casual unpleasantness in the world of Dumont's movies, to say nothing of the more pointed and atrocious unpleasantness, that his pictures seem to express more of a worldview than a particularized commentary. At the same time, all these flashy 4WD vehicles and lard-colored soft-serve ice-creams and romanticized Western frontiers and vulgar talk shows on the television couldn't be found in just any country. The shift in Dumont's titles, from the broad Humanité to the referentiality of Twentynine Palms, also feels less than arbitrary.

The last scene of Twentynine Palms virtually reprises the scenario of Humanité, as a police officer stumbles across a dead body but can't enact any proper response to his discovery: he's reporting the death over a walkie-talkie, but his supervisors won't send anyone out to deal with it, which means he can't deal with it, either. We might start divining that Dumont has a beef with the police, except that the stymied men of law enforcement really don't differ much from the stuck, adrift characters they're meant to protect. Everyone in Humanité and Twentynine Palms is choked, inexpressive of a single cogent thought or action, evidently resigned to the ceaseless cycle of antagonism that encompasses both the world and their own response to it. What Dumont expresses is too guttural and inchoate to even be called despair. It's not there yet, or else it's way past that. It's like a state of non-being that all the traveling and talking and fighting and fucking in the world fails to change.

Von Trier's point of view is less nihilistic, though Dogville is certainly the most nihilistic of his films that I have seen. I wonder if it's a sign of America's imperial omnipresence and swaggering dominion over the world that it's hard to film a direct attack on the country without simultaneously targeting whole conceptual registers. In laying waste to a myth of American tolerance, Dogville lays waste to the idea of human kindness in general, and comes close to suggesting that human life itself is a haughty act of godlessness. Maybe things are different in other towns, but in Dogville's world, it isn't clear that there are other towns in that inky realm surrounding the stage. (When Grace tries to run away, she winds up right where she started—talk about touching the void.) Twentynine Palms yields a vision of America as a dusty hell, but the anomie is so expansive, and the anarchy at its edges is so absolute, that it's hard to imagine Dumont setting his sights anywhere else and reaching any different conclusion. We saw a similar phenomenon at work in the recent and excellent anthology project September 11 (11'09"01), in which the most vitriolically anti-U.S. short film, by Egypt's Youssef Chahine, was also the most skeptical about the possibility of true cinematic representations, period. Has America made itself so synonymous with the illusion of kindness, or with artistic illusion itself, that it's impossible to attack one of them without rejecting all three?

And do we take this as a weakness in the movies, that at a certain point, they plunge right into a heart of darkness that is a virtual enemy of artistic or moral expression? Is there any way to speak coherently from the furious point-of-view that Dogville and Twentynine Palms mutually inhabit? Is it right to esteem the movies for representing such grand discontent, or is it fair to find the stance reductive? Is it a measure of honesty to say that the present world is so sickly that nihilism is the only fitting conclusion for our art, or do we remember how often the artists of past eras have reached the same conclusion (after World War I, after World War II...) without giving up the ghost? Mrs. Dalloway and Potemkin and Guernica and Night and Fog were all born of the conviction that things were as bad as they were ever going to get, and though it is rash to expect every work of art to be a masterpiece, it seems fair to remind von Trier and Dumont that fury and hopelessness can still take integrated artistic form. Both of the new pictures remind us that hell is other people, and they each find stirring images and bold, idiosyncratic styles for repackaging that well-worn idea. I am not sure, though, that they lift the idea to the level of the insight. Twentynine Palms is the more internally consistent, though its ideology is so condensed along one sour note that "consistency" might be a diplomatic gloss for single-mindedness. Dogville inspires more confidence and wonder, largely because it tries to do and say more, but its visual conceits and showy, nine-part structure may still amount to a creative, absorbing way to say something that could have been said more simply: proof that you can still window-dress even in the absence of windows. These are good movies for not-good times, but they aren't quite great movies, which is a different thing altogether. Grades: Dogville: A–; Twentynine Palms: B

(Dogville Grade in April 2004: B+)

Awards for Dogville:
European Film Awards (2003): Best Director; Best Cinematography (Anthony Dod Mantle; also cited for 28 Days Later)

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