When a people, a culture, a world enters the film industry for the first time, I welcome it gladly—and part of that welcoming is a critique of that culture’s inaugural film as a film in and of itself, equal to all others, no better or worse for its foreign novelty. The Fast Runner is the first-ever Inuit film—by which I say, the first film made entirely on Inuit terms, in their language, Inuktitut—and I think that some critics were quick to hail it as a masterpiece for this reason, a tendency that indicates to me a sort of racial condescension. “Oh look!” the attitude seems to be. “The Eskimos have discovered the cinema!” I am not so easily won over and not so enamored. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk, Runner adapts an ancient Inuit parable in which the titular athlete beds a woman betrothed to a rival clan’s prodigal son, ends up being framed for his older brother’s murder, and flees the premises. As an ethnography, of course, this is beyond criticism. The fur coats and tattoos; the construction of igloos; the way marine meat is prepared with a hammer; the openness towards sex; the treatment of sled dogs; the migration from snow to grass and river; the way life is lived—not just survived—in such a barren perpetual winter—these are all sights to behold. Critically, the Inuit culture values sport and physical strength, as one must be Spartan and horse-like to spend one’s life in the tundra of northern Canada. There are contests that routinely test such mind-blowing corporeal skills as kicking one’s feet up to knock down a pole and trying to use the back of one’s head to maneuver an elastic band off another’s hand. Similar contests—punching and mouth-pulling matches and such—serve as set pieces here. The scene in which the Fast Runner runs away from his brother’s slaughter, barefoot and nude, pecker literally in the wind, across snow and ice and stream in freezing weather, is marvelous, and one gains an immense trust and appreciation that the actors performed all their own stunts, with no stunt doubles (those jarring, albeit sometimes necessary, blemishes on agency and performance). Yet, as with most debut films, there are novice errors. The mise en scène is often lazy and generic; the actors often stand around like middle-school kids loitering in a park after hours smoking pot. Nearly three hours of that, where there could have been two, is hard to let pass. This is mainly a fault of the direction, though I do feel that the non-professional actors are overall better at small scenes between two or three people, for which their minimalism is more fit, than larger crowd scenes, which demand more incentive and animation. There are two pivotal scenes—a love scene in a crowded tent, and a coup d’état by stabbing—that are so absurd and so badly staged, I could not buy them, try as I might, and they nearly lost me. But they didn’t; The Fast Runner’s story is plenty gripping to recommend.
In Dogville, the title village is constructed on a soundstage. The streets and the buildings’ floor plans are labeled in chalk. There are no ceilings, no walls, no windows, just some furniture—though the ensemble, in the tradition of theatre and by extension of cinema, acts like what’s missing is there, in character throughout. The existence of doors is mimed with action and sound effect, with no irony. We see the entire village population going about their day, performing quotidian tasks, within their walls, unaware of what’s going on beyond them—though we are. The camera may close in on action in one house and capture mundane movement in others, as if by accident, yet the actors on the periphery never let their guard drop. An entire culture is on display; we’re even allowed into these characters’ private thoughts, via John Hurt’s faux-literary narration. It goes to support what I wrote a few weeks back in my review of In Vanda’s Room: interiors are fallacious. Walls are not structures insomuch as they are concepts, secrets, barriers from knowledge, spheres of influence. More to the point, I don’t think this is a conceit (as some critics have said) but rather a different, more multi-dimensional way of perceiving life and action. The director, Lars von Trier, has given us access to see through walls as time travel would let us break those boundaries, to be omniscient. This—in tandem with the numerous shots looking straight down on the soundstage, depicting the actors’ heads as roving Pac-Man dots—convinces me that von Trier, in another of his endless controversial moves, wants us to play God, to exercise power, to judge these characters, to decide for ourselves between justice and mercy. It’s amusing how small, even petty, actors of the stature of Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany can look through the machinations and dissections of von Trier’s ruthless eye.
Dogville is an epic set in the American West during the Great Depression. Von Trier hates America. He’s never been to America, though I’m not yet sure whether that’s because he hates it or because he’s afraid of flying (maybe both). Dogville has been called anti-American—not that there’s anything wrong with that by itself, but some have thought it a narrow position to take, and a naïve one when the lack of time spent studying the location in person is considered. To this, I advise you to bear in mind: Shakespeare never visited any of the exotic European locales he wrote about. Also: the film is kept bound within its tiny, nondescript village isolated in the Rockies to the point where I bought it. It’s an allegory of America, and it can afford to be inaccurate and even a little trite, and von Trier can get away with using it as a cathartic dumping ground for his various spites against the nation (you can get much relief out of doing that) because he is a sophisticated artist. The story he tells—like most of his stories—is simple, even when the canvas is broad and the ensemble vast. He sets his narrative up as a game, with rules and goals built to focus and challenge their characters, rules and goals that are constantly shifting but always clear. Grace (Kidman), running from the mob, hides in Dogville. She befriends the deliberately named Tom Edison (Bettany), the town’s writer—hence an inventor, so to speak, of tales and ideas—who persuades the close-knit-to-a-fault town to let her take sanctuary there, provided that she serves each of them with labor. She educates the kids, does the laundry, tends to the gooseberry bushes, acts as a surrogate to fill in the townspeople’s many disabilities and dysfunctions. She labors to survive. Who hasn’t? The whole plot jumps from there.
Von Trier is not for everyone. Not every actor wants to work with him. He is unafraid to disturb, upset, provoke, in the name of his art. On the other side of that penny, he can be soapy. Yet even the worst soap opera can be rescued by good performances (Cf. Shakespeare), and Dogville’s broad motley cast is fascinating to watch. Where else can you watch something like Stellan Skarsgård and Patricia Clarkson as the ultimate mismatched couple, the husband a philandering boor and the wife a tight-assed, prudish spinster who puts up with seven kids and schools Grace on Stoicism? Not to mention Lauren Bacall as the old miser mooching off the townsfolk with her beauty products and figurines and crafting a ludicrous etiquette to observe around her gooseberry bushes? And James Caan as the mob boss with a surprising connection to Grace? Add to that Philip Baker Hall, Jeremy Davies, Chloë Sevigny, Ben Gazzara, Udo Kier, Zeljko Ivanek, etc., and you have all sorts of acting styles and archetypes clashing in such fashions that one has to applaud von Trier for having the imagination and chutzpah to put it all together, and the ensemble for putting up with him. I hesitate to give away anything else about the story. I will say, though, that while the other two von Trier films I’ve seen (Breaking the Waves and Nymphomaniac) stumbled if not fumbled on their endings, Dogville’s denouement is a success. It is brutal, maddening, but well-earned and inevitable. Von Trier may be insane, but he has a point and he makes it well: the village’s poverty does not excuse its crimes. Grace’s ultimate actions against Dogville may horrify us, but would we judge the town differently?
Tomorrow: Reviews for Aguirre, and Bicycle Thieves, which I watched instead of Lore due to timing issues.