138. DOGVILLE (2003)

“To take ‘Dogville’ primarily as the vehicle for this [anti-American political] view, however, is to make it a much less interesting movie than it is… Mr. Von Trier offered, ‘I think the point to the film is that evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right.’ It is the pervasiveness of that evil — the thoroughness of the film’s pessimism — that may seem most alien of all to doggedly optimistic American sensibilities.”–A.O. Scott quoting Lars von Trier in his New York Times article on Dogville

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Bettany, , , , , Philip Baker Hall, Chloë Sevigny, , Siobhan Fallon,

PLOT: Tom Edison, who fancies himself an intellectual and a moralist and dreams of becoming a writer, is bored with life in the tiny, isolated mountain township of Dogville, until one day he comes across a beautiful, refined young woman who is fleeing gangsters for unknown reasons. Tom falls in love with her and convinces the town to take the woman in and hide her; they agree that the woman, Grace, will do chores for the townspeople to earn her keep and gain their trust. But the more the self-effacing Grace offers to the people of Dogville, the more they abuse her forgiving nature, until they have turned her into the town’s slave; then, the men who were searching her out arrive…

Still from Dogville (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dogville is the first movie in a proposed trilogy from von Trier entitled (ironically) “America: Land of Opportunity.” The second in the series, Manderlay (2005), was shot on a similar minimalist set, also narrated by John Hurt, and featured the character of Grace (played by Bryce Dallas Howard). Manderlay was not as well received and was a financial flop. The third film has not been announced. Von Trier refuses to fly and has never been to the United States.
  • Von Trier set up a reality-show style confessional booth next to the set where (sometimes disgruntled) actors could enter and speak to the camera. This footage was edited into the 52-minute documentary Dogville Confessions, which appears as an extra on some DVD releases of the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The shot of Nicole Kidman lying in the truck bed among the apples, seen through the transparent canvas, is probably the film’s most beautiful image. Dogville itself, however, is the film’s most memorable image: a single blank set, with house walls and gooseberry bushes indicated on the floor with chalk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Think that maybe Dogville may not be such a weird movie? Imagine you are about to pop this DVD into your player when your friend with the most ultra-conservative movie tastes walks in the room and asks what you’re about to watch. You respond, “Nicole Kidman plays a saintly woman fleeing mobsters who’s taken in by a small American town and used as a sex slave. Oh, and it’s shot in a warehouse with the buildings painted on the floor.” If your friend doesn’t immediately leave the room muttering “sounds too weird for me” then congratulations! Your most normal friend is a complete and utter weirdo.


Misleading original American release trailer for Dogville

COMMENTS: What director has a lower opinion of humanity than Lars von Trier? An acid moral parable, Dogville is almost weirdly ultra-rational, in contrast to the stark, panicky insanity von Trier would demonstrate six years later in Antichrist. Dogville‘s moral outrages play out on an absurdly minimal set; even the town dog, Moses, is a chalk outline. The high degree of unreality invests this Depression-era Colorado township, nestled in a neglected cranny of the Rockies, with mythical significance. A narrator describes the horrifying acts that occur there with viciously understated irony (“Bill, who had lately improved his engineering skills to an astonishing degree, had by way of his first design implemented a kind of escape prevention mechanism…”), and the film is divided into chapters each beginning with the old-timey legend “in which…” (e.g. “Chapter 6: In which Dogville bares its teeth.”) Children beg for spankings, and a man describes yesterday’s sunset in meticulous detail despite the fact that everyone in town knows he has been blind for years. If you are a bit confused as to what is going on in the icy township, it may help to orient yourself by considering a couple of the film’s literary influences, since Dogville can be see as “Justine” acted out on the set of “Our Town.”

Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play “Our Town” is the most obvious stylistic influence on Dogville. The stage directions in the script of the play specify that it should be performed with no set and minimal props; the curtain rises onto a blank scene, until the character of the “Stage Manager” sets up a table and chairs for the actors to use. Wilder’s intent in dictating the use of minimal sets was to force the audience to focus on the actors and their emotions rather than on things, which were mere distractions to the story. Wilder’s technique was, of course, a down-home American iteration of Bertolt Brecht’s “Alienation Effect,” a theatrical device that introduces elements of unreality into a production in order to make the familiar strange, and to highlight the work’s status as a work of art so that the audience will think critically about what the author intends to say, rather than becoming lost in the story as mere escapism. Although Dogville is often called a filmed play, sometimes dismissively, there is a major difference in scope between this cinematic vision and what is possible on stage. Von Trier is able to create impressive effects by using a wide angle to show the entire town in one shot; particularly chilling is when Grace is being raped for the first time inside one house, and the camera pulls back to show the townsfolk going about their daily business while the violation is taking place. With no walls for the residents to hide behind, we are given an omniscient, Godlike view of the town. Other similarities to Wilder’s play include the early twentieth century American small town setting and John Hurt as an omniscient narrator who serves approximately the same role as “Our Town”‘s Stage Manager. Von Trier’s decision to place his actors in an existential void where they must turn invisible doorknobs to enter invisible houses is no gimmick, but a deliberate choice which serves several purposes: it references past tradition in an ironic way, it creates the alienation effect and encourages us to think about the story as an unnatural parable, and it makes the setting universal (the action occurs in Gilles Deleuze’s “any-space-whatever“) despite being simultaneously set in a very particular time and place.

While “Our Town” sets the formal boundaries of Dogville, the activity inside of the town resembles the depravities of Marquis de Sade’s famous pornographic novel “Justine.” In “Justine” (subtitled “the Misfortunes of Virtue”) a virginal and virtuous orphan girl is repeatedly wronged and raped by everyone she meets, yet clings to her Christian beliefs; this, despite the fact that her faith not only fails to protect her, but encourages a naiveté that actively delivers her into the hands of her abusers. Like Dogville‘s Grace, Justine flees men who wish to harm her, and when she seeks refuge with supposedly good people (in Justine’s case, at a monastery; in Grace’s, a small town), she is deceived and turned into a sex slave. Still, no matter how much evil she suffers, Justne stands firm in her conviction that it is better to do good and suffer than to do evil and profit. Imprisoned by her religious mindset, Justine continues to trust in others despite ample evidence that her faith in people’s inherent goodness is wrong. Justine finds that the man who helps her escape one bunch of libertines only does so that he might betray her and kidnap her for himself, much as Grace finds herself ravaged among the apples by her rescuer.  The kinder each of the heroines is to those around her, the more abuse she brings upon herself. By the end of Dogville von Trier has Kidman in literal bondage, imprisoned in a Sadean collar, still forgiving her oppressors.

What the combination of “Our Town” and “Justine” winds up as, in von Trier’s hands, is a perverted Christ allegory—in the end, virtually an anti-Christ allegory. Grace’s name alone creates obvious symbolism; combined with her almost inconceivable capacity to forgive any outrage done to her, her status as a Christ figure is unavoidable. The people of Dogville do not deserve Grace. She comes to them, serves them, and they reject her, mock her, and finally hand her over to the authorities. Yet, she continues to forgive them—she excuses them, saying that they are weak, too weak to be good. She asks, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And yet, when the time comes for her final sacrifice that will save the town, von Trier reverses the course of the parable. I will not describe precisely what happens in order not to spoil the movie for first time viewers, but suffice it to say that in Dogville, things do not go according to the plan for salvation set out in the Gospels. Grace debates with the Father, the Big Man, in a climactic dialogue for Dogville’s soul. Von Trier’s denouement is one de Sade would approve of; he pulls the rug out from under the audience, replacing the final turn of the Christian redemption myth with the myth of redemptive violence.

Many critics focus on Dogville‘s implicit anti-Americanism, seeing the town as representing the USA and the story as a fable of American arrogance. While von Trier’s provocative public statements support the view that he’s no fan of America, the only internal evidence in the movie suggesting such an interpretation is the closing credits, in which ‘s “Young Americans” plays over vintage Depression-era photographs of the suffering poor. If Dogville represents America, what are we to make of the movie’s final chapter? Does von Trier means to suggest that the United States “got what it deserved” in the 9/11 tragedy—and that it is owed even worse, that it deserves to be wiped off the map? It seems implausible to think that von Trier would literally propose such a reading. I think, rather, that the interpretation of Dogville as a mere anti-American screed sets the bar too low, and sells von Trier short. He doesn’t merely hate Americans, he hates all of humanity. Taken at face value, Dogville suggests that we are all evil at heart, that given the opportunity and community support we will commit terrible crimes and deny them even to ourselves. It suggests that society’s thinking classes, represented by Tom, are impotent to constrain our lower natures, and will eventually join with the mob out of necessity and self-preservation. It suggests that none of us deserve to live. Unfortunately, much of human history, not just American history, supports this thesis. Many share this director’s dim view of humanity, in theory. Very few would be willing to carry their illustration of that view to the logical extreme that von Trier does here.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You just have to see it to believe it. Frankly, I have never seen anything like it, which is not to say that it’s good or bad, but it is different and even original.”–Andrew Sarris, The New York Observer (contemporaneous)

“…[a] three-hour exercise in inept avant-gardism… We might be present at a nightmarish school play.”–David Denby, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

“…the movie, despite its ultimate nuttiness, has a quiet, consuming power that sneaks up on you and doesn’t go away.”–Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Dogville – Official Movie Website – UK and Ireland- Starring Nicole Kidman – UK distributor Icon Entertainment’s Dogville site remains up; it includes the alternate “confessional booth” trailer for the film

IMDB LINK: Dogville (2003)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Dogville at Festival de Cannes – The Cannes Film Festival Dogville page includes excerpts from a press conference, interviews, and a low-res clip from the film

AboutFilm.com – Dogville (2003) – This angry analysis by Carlo Cavango sets out the case that Dogville is an anti-American allegory

‘Dogville’: It Fakes a Village – A.O. Scott argues in The New York Times that seeing Dogville solely as an anti-American allegory sells the film short

Dogville | Christianity Today – An (unexpectedly positive) review of the film from a Christian perspective

Directing In The Dark – Dana Thomas’ article for Newsweek covers von Trier’s personal and artistic background up to Dogville

Dogville (Philosophical Films) – Thirteen ethical discussion questions raised by Dogville‘s plot

On the Nature of Dogs, the Right of Grace, Forgiveness and Hospitality: Derrida, Kant, and Lars Von Trier’s Dogville – Imposing but insightful essay written by Adam Atkinson for Senses of Cinema, focusing mostly on the theme of hospitality

900 Lights and a 50-Pound Lars-Cam – “Village Voice” article on cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and his role in creating the world of Dogville

DVD INFO: The Lionsgate DVD (buy) includes the misleading trailer and a commentary by von Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The two have an easy camaraderie, but they stick mostly to technical points and avoid discussing the film’s deeper meanings. They do not chat for the entire three hour running time, but pop in and out of the action with comments. The movie can also be purchased digitally (buy).

(This movie was nominated for review by “Roxana.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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