Is this the anti-American 'Our Town'?

"Dogville" had its première at last spring's Cannes film festival - where many of the 4,000 journalists present were on the lookout not only for great movies, but also for signs of anti-American sentiment as the Iraq war surged through its early stages.

Danish director Lars von Trier is uncannily gifted at pushing cultural and emotional buttons. He couldn't have made "Dogville" in response to current world tensions, since it takes a long time to produce such a lengthy, ambitious picture. Still, its debut came at exactly the right moment to set pulses racing and spectators arguing.

Politically, some found it an astute analysis of contemporary mores - while others called it an anti-American diatribe by a blowhard who's never visited the country he's criticizing. Artistically, some hailed it as a cinematic breakthrough, while others moaned at its three-hour length and groaned at its style, which uses a kinetic camera wandering around a stylized stage set made of painted cardboard.

This gives a deliberately artificial look to the action, playing serious events against a setting that combines the ambience of Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town" with something like a giant Monopoly board.

The main character is a woman (Nicole Kidman) who arrives in fictional Dogville, Colo., on the run from dangerous criminals. The villagers want no part of her, but a young man (Paul Bettany) persuades his neighbors to shelter her for a while. Soon they start asking for services in return, and as time passes she becomes a dehumanized servant of the whole community.

Then the criminals show up, throwing everything we've seen into a new perspective that's at least as unsettling as what we've seen so far.

Does this add up to a ferocious critique of American society, full of hypocrites masking selfishness and materialism beneath a wafer-thin veneer of "individual responsibility" and "free enterprise" values? Or is it more about the state of humanity in general than the failings of Americans in particular?

Cannes viewers were all over the map about this, and a few internalized the debate, reaching highly conflicted conclusions.

A critic friend of mine called it "a masterpiece that is nearly unwatchable."

I think the movie's style provides the key to its substance. Style is always at the forefront of Mr. von Trier's imagination, and he follows no self- imposed rules.

He helped initiate the no-frills Dogma 95 movement with "Breaking the Waves," and then broke all its rules by shooting the flamboyant "Dancer in the Dark" with 100 choreographed cameras.

Now he has entered yet another dimension, directing one of the most stage-bound movies ever made.

The main effect of his visual approach in "Dogville" is to point up the illusory underpinnings of human experience itself, with all its philosophical and ideological self-delusions.

It also spotlights the existential isolation that weighs on people who don't look beyond their own limited mentalities for larger visions of what life, individuality, and community really are.

Rather than a denunciation of American ways, it's a cautionary tale about the dangers faced by any society that becomes smug, self-indulgent, and arrogant.

Von Trier relishes his reputation as a cinematic enfant terrible, and he certainly tweaks American viewers during the final credits, showing photographs of poverty and affliction in the American past.

Look beyond such roguish gestures, though, and you'll find a dramatic, challenging movie with messages that are as constructive as they are radical.

Rated R; contains sexuality and violence.

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