Empty Set, Plot to Match

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Actors are weird. It's part of their job description. What other trade compels a person to travel halfway around the world, get up at 5 a.m. each day, dress and talk funny, gain or lose 40 lbs. and make simulated love or war with a near stranger? The decamillions that movie stars pull down may amount to combat pay. And if they do it for next to nothing — well, that's either noble or very ... weird.

In these terms, a Lars von Trier movie is a dream-nightmare come true. And Nicole Kidman, who not only endured but also apparently savored her 17-month incarceration while making Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, is just the actress to see directorial fiat as a fast car worth strapping herself into. The result of this fascinating collision is Dogville, for which the notoriously kooky Danish auteur lured a distinguished cast to Scandinavia (he refuses to fly) so they could pretend to be in an American town in the 1930s.

Which town? Our Town. Von Trier asserts his intention to rethink the classic Thornton Wilder play with his film's magnificent first shot: an overhead view of a nearly bare stage set, with Dogville's properties and props designated by painted lines. The old mine down the road is identified by a sign reading OLD MINE. A townsman closes an invisible door and we hear a slamming noise. Von Trier presumably wants us to attend to his characters' yearnings and prejudices without the distractions of period furnishings.

It's a brilliant idea, for about 10 minutes. Then the bare set is elbowed out of a viewer's mind by the threadbare plot and characterizations. Into this town of ostensibly decent folk comes a fugitive named Grace (Kidman), a familiar Von Trier heroine-victim, like the ones played by Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves and Bjork in Dancer in the Dark. Grace is the beneficiary of the townspeople's Christian charity, then the victim of their envy, malice, lies and sadism. She stoically endures a spate of abuse nearly as long and relentless as Jesus' in the Mel Gibson gospel. Her resurrection, though, takes a different, darker turn.

Incarnating amiability with an undercoat of evil can be a benison to an actor. Unfortunately for them, Dogville's old pros (including Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Harriet Andersson, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgaard, Patricia Clarkson and Blair Brown) have only attitudes, not characters, to play, and these are as flat as the lines on the floor. It's not a pretty sight: gifted actors with big ambitions and nothing purposeful to do. Only two things keep one's eyes on the screen: the spectacle of the gorgeous Kidman soldiering on as Grace's regality is defiled, and the suspicion that this resourceful woman will find a way to revenge herself on the town without pity. And the director without humanity.