Trapped in Dogville

Nicole Kidman is in the hotel lobby, talking about sex. Anthony Hopkins, sometimes known as Hannibal Lecter, is in the downstairs restaurant, sending his food back twice. Nicolas Cage is on the street outside, munching an ice-cream cone. Francis Ford Coppola is in the kiosk next-door, rifling through the papers for reviews of a new film directed by his daughter, Sofia. Kim Cattrall ( Sex and the City ) and Fran Drescher ( The Nanny ), both without a TV series, are power-shopping for shoes and movie deals. It’s not Kansas. It must be the Toronto International Film Festival. This annual circus, celebrating its 28th year, has survived a projectionist strike, a SARS epidemic and 9/11. Nothing can stop it, including a plague of movies so bad you wouldn’t watch them anywhere else, not even on a bet. But this year, one thing almost did. Toronto almost choked on its own success.

With 336 films from 55 countries showing on 21 screens in nine theaters over a period of nine days, there is simply too much to see. With 750 journalists elbowing their way through thousands of movie buffs who have been sleeping in the streets for a chance at standing-room tickets, there are too many people. The festival has exploded. Gone are the days when everyone stayed in the same hotel with a press room on one floor and Clint Eastwood pouring wine for the critics at midnight in the downstairs bar. Now the festival is spread all over the city. Festival promoters say they need new ways to expand the event’s geographical perimeters, which is like Starbucks saying it needs a location for a new coffee shop. The truth is, for the first time in 28 years, the festival has grown to such unmanageable proportions that the great hospices of splendor that used to host it no longer want to have anything to do with it. Fortunately, I am once again ensconced at the posh Four Seasons in Yorkville, where every major star in town stays, but “last year,” said the concierge, ” festival goers peed on the Oriental carpets, overloaded the telephone circuits until they were out of order, paralyzed the elevators and abused the 4 a.m. curfew in the bar until we had to summon the police. Never again.” The same objection holds true for the Windsor Arms, Sutton Place and other Glam hotels in Yorkville, the section of the city where the screenings are held.

The result is that the official headquarters of the most prestigious cultural event in Toronto, the press conferences and most of the invited press and industry representatives, have all been shuttled miles away from the movie palaces where the films are shown, to Toronto’s largest downtown hotel, a tacky convention hangout called the Delta Chelsea which boasts 1,600 Charles rooms and an enormous Disney water slide. Everybody hoped for a glimpse of Meg Ryan in her bikini, taking a ride on that slide, but no such luck. No A-list star checked into the Delta Chelsea, which is located in the same neighborhood as a seedy sex shop, a cheesy tattoo parlor and two X-rated strip clubs, one of which features a live “She-Male” revue in the basement, but is so far away from where the action unfolds that to pick up an invitation to a cocktail party with Ate Blanched or a ticket for a sneak preview of a new film with Hugh Grant, I have to splurge for a $10 taxi ride or take a city bus and two separate subway trains. This is a well-funded festival with so many corporate sponsors already that eager new investors have to be placed on a waiting list for their chance at a piece of the PR pie. In three years the Festival Center, part of a $87.5 million redevelopment plan, will open and all of these space problems will end. Meanwhile, it’s a time-consuming predicament, and for the journalist seriously trying to cover a film festival of this magnitude, time is one thing you can’t afford to waste. To soothe all the ruffled feelings, the festival installed a free popcorn machine in the hotel lobby with help-yourself paper bags, but you can still hear the grousing all the way to Montreal.

But enough caveats. With all of its logistical challenges, Toronto is still the friendliest, best-organized film festival on the planet, featuring the most expansive and eclectic program. From low-budget experiments to Hollywood blockbusters, there is something for everyone in Toronto, and everyone comes. They line up for tickets weeks in advance. Even the newspapers forsake the headlines for a sniff of celebrity dish; the resignation of the Palestinian prime minister and the failed Israeli assassination attempt on the founder and spiritual leader of Hammers, two world events of staggering impact, were relegated to oblivion in competition with feature stories on what to wear to crash celebrity cocktail parties, and it is positively astonishing how much passion, intensity and research went into one newspaper’s front-page “scoop” on how Bill Clinton lost 30 pounds on the South Beach diet.

In reality, the Daily Dazzle is weak this year. Clearly one star alone is providing most of the wattage. On my first day, I saw one brilliant, unforgettable motion picture (Robert Benson’s deeply moving adaptation of the Philip Roth novel The Human Stain ) and one pointless, pretentious, mind-numbingly amateurish piece of twaddle ( Dogville , by the awesomely awful Lars von Trier). Both of them starred Nicole Kidman. For an irrefutable superstar (currently the most bankable actress of her generation), she is also fearless, versatile, and doubly marvelous, proving there is not only life after Tom Cruise but a solid career based on the kind of range, discipline and no-nonsense craftsmanship I never suspected until now. (The Hillary Clinton of Hollywood?) In the mesmerizing, multi-layered, erotically charged The Human Stain , she plays a mop-pushing, emotionally dead 34-year-old janitor on the custodial staff of a snobby New England college who has an affair with a 71-year-old dean of classical literature far above her level in the class structure and more than twice her age (played with irresistible vitality by Anthony Hopkins). Both characters are deeply conflicted, concealing troubled histories they have never shared with anyone. Falsely accused of racism, with his academic reputation stained and his personal integrity compromised, Coleman (Hopkins) faces even more private anguish when his loyal and supportive wife (an excellent bit by Phyllis Newman) dies suddenly of an embolism. Grief-stricken, his career in ruins, the former dean and disenfranchised intellectual further shocks the Massachusetts snobs around him-already piously chortling, in the summer of 1998, over President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and his ensuing impeachment crisis-by (1) befriending a blocked fiction writer (a wonderful turn by Gary Sinise) who lives a secluded life in a cabin in the woods, and (2) now fueled into a new sense of security by Viagra, sleeping with the emotionally callused, chain-smoking Faunia (Kidman), a well-born woman and once-happy wife and mother whose tortured guilt over the deaths of her children in a careless fire has turned her into a sluttish shell of empty despair. Ed Harris lends piercing, passionate support as her ex-husband Lester, a psychotic Vietnam veteran whose Thorazine glaze shuffles between troubled stays in mental hospitals, peaceful ice-fishing on a frozen lake and violent assaults on Faunia. The once-prestigious professor is now, at 71, threatened by both an anonymous letter-writer on the college faculty and a dangerous lunatic. But nothing comes as close to self-destruction as the secret he has guarded all of his life-the fact that he is from racially mixed blood. The action of the film moves comfortably and skillfully between Coleman’s sexy, edgy experiences in 1998 and his innocent younger college days in 1948, when his life-altering decision to pass for white severed his ties with his family and ended his first and truest love. How all of these complex people deal with their pain, regret, need and disparity gives the film a vibrant, throbbing intensity that is inescapable. In setting, theme and character development, The Human Stain is about the duality of human nature, the tragic consequences of alienation and the desperate struggle, sorrow and value of the human soul. Incisive, mature, literate and profoundly heartbreaking, this is a work of art.

Changing wigs from long, mousy and brown, to short, blonde and bobbed for the 1930’s, Nicole Kidman does an about-face in Dogville , a stylized, three-hour creep show that comes off like an amateurish sophomore allegory about the social and political cancer of America, staged in the hackneyed style of German expressionism. Our Town , by Bertolt Brecht? Only Lars ( Dancer in the Dark ) von Trier, the Danish nut whose bloated reputation for incoherent audacity has been sadly inflated by movie critics and ignored by audiences everywhere, could get away with such bilge. Ms. Kidman plays Grace, a mysterious blonde in a floor-length fur coat pursued by gangsters in the middle of the Depression era, who wanders into a Colorado mountain town called Dogville, located at the end of a dead-end road next to a deserted mine shaft. Dogville is really a sound stage in Trollhatten, Sweden, and its battered, bedraggled, burned-out and woefully miscast citizens include Ben Gazzara, Blair Brown, Harriet Andersson, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård and-are you ready?-Lauren Bacall(!) as a wrinkled old hag called Ma Ginger, who hoes dirt and bakes pathetic-looking pies from gooseberry bushes. Grace’s kindness and generosity win over the suspicious townsfolk, who repay her slavery and help by beating, raping and chaining her by the neck to an iron wheel. For three hours, Grace drags that wheel around like a prisoner in a medieval dungeon while the people of Dogville metaphorically act out America’s hypocritical policies on immigration, foreign affairs, civil rights, the war in Iraq and the Community Chest on a Monopoly board with crude sets indicating such landmarks as “Old Lady’s Bench” and “Steep Hill.” At the end of three torturous hours, when Ms. Kidman turns into the Queen of the Fascists and guns down the whole town, the movie has lost every claim to coherence and ruptures its own curiosity value as a freak show, but you wonder why it took her so long.

Pretentious, anti-American and laughably ludicrous, this aberration will naturally find an honored place in the forthcoming New York Film Festival. I’ll deal with it then at greater length, as long as I never have to see it again. Meanwhile, suffering through it for the first and only time was almost worth the agony for the occasion it presented to dine with Nicole Kidman. For a gun-shy glamourpuss stalked by the paparazzi and living in a fishbowl, she’s warm, elegant, friendly, candid, savvy about the film business, refreshingly unpretentious and nearly six feet tall in heels. She scoffs at the idea that she’s Toronto’s chief attraction this year. “I also came to Toronto as a producer,” she said, beaming. “I optioned Jane Campion’s erotic thriller In the Cut with my own money, but I was so bruised and frightened by the breakup with Tom that I gave up the part to Meg Ryan. I’m a new, independent person now, and I think what I do next is important. I want to work for directors with vision, no matter how long it takes them to get it on film, which is why I sacrificed two years of my life for Stanley Kubrick. Challenge is everything. Playing that singing courtesan in Moulin Rouge was a challenge. Then I went through the challenge of doing a play in London and on Broadway, and that’s where Stephen Daldry saw me and gave me The Hours . It’s all connected. This year I’ve been exposed to the sensitivity and polish of Robert Benton and Anthony Minghella, and the sort of mad genius that makes Lars von Trier unique. I learned things about life and myself from both of those films. Next I’m playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s mother in Baz’s film about Alexander the Great, and then I’ll spend six months in China making a movie for Wong Kar-wai. None of this is for money. It’s for the challenge. I worked for scale on Dogville . I scrubbed toilets in The Human Stain for no money. I didn’t make any money on Cold Mountain . And then, in interviews, all they want to ask me about is how much sex there is in these films. People don’t care how much blood and violence they see as long as they are protected from sex. I mean, hello-what year are we living in? Give me some credit. I don’t do violence. Dogville is very, very weird. No sets, no lighting or sound effects, just chalk marks on the ground-and no money. O.K., it’s an experiment. But it’s an inexpensive experiment, like theater. In this business, you can work for nothing or you can do The Stepford Wives .” Nicole Kidman is doing both.

Glitz has its place, but this year, despite autograph hunters pressing their noses in vain against the dark windows of stretch limos, it must be admitted there isn’t much Wow Factor. For every Denzel Washington, there are a dozen lower-rung climbers who have never seen a Hollywood contract. They have arrived with serious films about political corruption, homophobia, racism, poverty, death, capital punishment, suicidal despair and every other assorted crime against humanity in the Book of Ages.

Blowjobs and death! Every movie in Toronto seems to feature one or the other, and Jane Campion’s In the Cut doses up plenty of both. In the role Nicole Kidman was too freaked out from her divorce to tackle, Meg Ryan rips it all off, lets it all hang out, and hits the ground running. Sex! Blood! Meg Ryan full frontal! The world premiere was jammed. Security guards ran body checks to ward off film pirates concealing Betacams. A second theater had to be opened to accommodate the gridlock. The movie attracted more people than a used-tire sale in Baghdad, but turned out to be only half as interesting. A serial killer is slicing and dicing up Manhattan, leaving whole neighborhoods like Jeffrey Dahmer’s fridge. Looking haggard, kinky and ravaged in Jane Fonda’s old wig from Klute , Meg Ryan plays an English professor and potential victim who watched one of the murdered girls fellating the maniac in a sordid club where she hangs out to research a book she’s writing on slang. The killer had a three of spades tattooed on his wrist. Now the respectable schoolteacher–nympho slut finds herself stalked by a neurotic hospital intern, a hulking black student and a foul-mouthed, oversexed homicide detective with-you guessed it-a three-of-spades tattoo! For an intelligent, educated woman, she’ll sleep with anybody, but the worry over that cop’s tattoo causes her so much stress that she hardly has time to perfect the art of the Kama Sutra before she finds the severed head of her half-sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the bathtub and gets dragged off to the killer’s hideaway beneath the George Washington Bridge! Ms. Ryan and Mark Ruffalo, who plays the hairy cop, go at it like hamsters in heat, and Jane Campion doesn’t care which body parts get in the way. Nothing about this porno picnic makes much sense, including the title, In the Cut . Every illogical plot point is inserted as an annoying red herring, and the shots of raw sex from every camera angle, as well as the graphic closeups of bloody human organs spilling out of a New York laundromat machine on the rinse cycle-well, let’s just say this muddled fiasco is not for the prim, the proper, the squeamish or anyone concerned about losing I.Q. points at the movies.

By contrast, it’s been a thrill to experience The Company , Robert Altman’s colorful, affectionate tribute to the ballet world starring the entire Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and Neve Campbell, who spearheaded the film’s production, about a season in the careers and personal lives of the people who make up a great ballet company under the dictatorial guidance and parental control of an eccentric, superficial company director, flamboyantly played by Malcolm McDowall. A total joy, as is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation , a focused and consistently caring study of two lonely Americans (Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson) whose lives poignantly intersect in a Tokyo hotel. You hear the applause for Altman. You hear the boos for Underworld , a futuristic Romeo and Juliet in which the feuding Montagues and Capulets are werewolves and vampires. You overhear the wisecracks in the ticket lines (“I love Bill Murray, but if he ever takes his shirt off again, I’m bailing!”) and watch the middle-aged grannyboppers lined up for a glimpse of middle-aged rocker Neil Young arm in arm with badass buddy Woody Harrelson, and the movie collage that shaped a universe comes true.

That’s what brings us all together in Toronto-everyone from every viewpoint, united in a passion for movies and anxious to share. Best example of the spirit of Toronto 2003? Gong Li, the Audrey Hepburn of China, perched on a barstool in a ponytail, black slacks and a tailored white blouse, sipping a pink lemonade. “Ask her if she has any interest in studying English so she can break into Hollywood movies,” I said to her interpreter. She beamed like Buddha. Without a beat, the porcelain figurine who has enchanted the world with her portraits of ancient courtesans in the greatest masterpieces in the history of Chinese cinema, shot back: “Oh, yes. I sign with I.C.M.”

Trapped in Dogville