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Dogville
Director: Lars von Trier
Screenplay: Lars von Trier
Stars: Nicole Kidman (Grace Margaret Mulligan), Harriet Andersson (Gloria), Lauren Bacall (Ma Ginger), Paul Bettany (Tom Edison Jr.), Blair Brown (Mrs. Henson), James Caan (The Big Man), Patricia Clarkson (Vera), Jeremy Davies (Bill Henson), Ben Gazzara (Jack McKay), Philip Baker Hall (Tom Edison Sr.), Thom Hoffman (Gangster), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Martha), Chloë Sevigny (Liz Henson), Stellan Skarsgård (Chuck), John Hurt (Narrator)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2004
Country: Denmark / Sweden / UK / France
Dogville
Dogville Note: This review contains some spoilers, particularly about the end of the film. Proceed at your own risk if you haven’t already seen it.

Lars von Trier’s Dogville is aesthetically sparse and thematically audacious, the searing work of a genuine provocateur. Von Trier is a filmmaker who elicits as much wild praise as he does fierce condemnation because he pushes buttons and challenges boundaries. His weakness, though, is that his ideological baggage is often heavier than the stories that carry it, which is why some of his most recent films, particularly Dancer in the Dark (2000), are more bullying and silly than moving and thought-provoking.

With its visual and narrative abstractness, Dogville largely avoids that trap as it demands to be read allegorically. Unfortunately, though, von Trier doesn’t follow the guidance of one of his own characters, who laments that many authors fail because they get too specific. Dogville works quite well as a brutal, if somewhat simplistic allegory about human nature right up until the final credits, when von Trier gets unnecessarily specific with a montage of images of disenfranchised and impoverished people in the U.S. to the tune of David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” It’s not the clear anti-Americanism that’s the problem, but the fact that von Trier betrays the openness of his film at the last minute by pointing fingers and ruining the universality that had informed the previous three hours.

The titular hamlet in Dogville is set in the Rocky Mountains during the Great Depression, which would seem to ground the film in American culture. Yet, despite all the cries of “anti-Americanism” that have followed the film everywhere, right until the end it maintains a sense of generality that makes its allegorical applications universal. For instance, there is no overt discussion of American politics; it is never suggested that the town’s impoverishment is due to the failure of the American capitalist system. And the eventual cruelty of the townspeople is never explicitly linked to anything in the American cultural system; they’re just cruel.

Von Trier also made the bold decision to depict Dogville in starkly theatrical terms by representing the town’s buildings with neat chalk outlines on a black soundstage floor, with only a bare minimum of props to suggest the material aspects of living there (naturally, this aligns the film with the stage production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, of which Dogville can be seen as a twisted, displaced variation). The very first shot of the film is an extreme high angle looking straight down on the entire town, each street and building marked with stenciled lettering declaring “Elm Street” or “Chuck and Vera’s House.” Thus, the lack of visible architecture distances Dogville from any specific location, not to mention the fact that the blank walls on all sides (which are black at night and white during the day) give the feeling that the literally dead-end town exists in a universe all its own. Granted, the cars and the clothing suggest Americana circa the early 1930s, but the overall sensation you get is one of locational blankness—this could be an impoverished small town anywhere.

Dogville has the structure and tone of a storybook, with John Hurt providing an explanatory voice-over narration that has the cadence of a fatherly figure reading a fairy tale. In the first of the film’s nine “chapters,” we are introduced to the 15 people who live in the town. The central character with whom we identify is Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), the son of the local doctor (Philip Baker Hall). Tom thinks of himself as a writer—a philosopher and intellectual whose duty it is to better the town’s civic and moral virtues. They get a real test when a beautiful woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman) stumbles into the town one day on the run from gangsters. Tom convinces the rest of the town to take Grace in and hide her from her pursuers, even though they know very little about her, especially why she’s on the run. Grace turns out to be as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside, and she earns her keep in town by working everyday for each of Dogville’s citizens.

However, when the police show up and post a wanted poster with Grace’s picture on it, the townspeople start to get uneasy and demand more of her. As they are essentially putting themselves at risk by hiding her from the authorities, they demand that she do more for them. This quid pro quo slowly but steadily becomes sinister, as what at first appeared to be Grace pitching in to maintain the community morphs into indentured servitude and then outright enslavement—physically, mentally, and sexually. Grace is completely dehumanized by the townspeople, literally put in chains and denied any chance to leave town even as her treatment becomes worse and worse.

At this point, those familiar with von Trier’s work will see immediate links to both Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), both of which feature good-hearted women who are brutalized. Some (including myself) have seen this persistent tendency in von Trier’s work as a sign of deep-seated misogyny and sadism, and on the surface it would appear that Dogville is just another link in that chain. However, Grace differs substantially from both Bess in Breaking the Waves and Selma in Dancer in the Dark because she is not just a good person, but also one of significant intelligence and maturity. Bess and Selma were both childlike, which made the eventual violence leveled against them that much more disconcerting. Also, the violence that Grace endures does not seem arbitrary because we understand that she literally cannot escape. Dogville, on the surface a perfect slice of small town charm, becomes her prison. Selma’s suffering in Dancer in the Dark, on the other hand, was purely the result of hammy narrative conceits designed to ensure it, which makes von Trier seem not only sadistic, but a bad writer.

Dogville takes a significant turn in its final chapter, when the townspeople finally decide that keeping Grace enslaved is more than they can handle and they turn her over to the gangsters. Even Tom, the civic-minded moral voice of the town (who has also, not incidentally, fallen in love with Grace and she with him), not only goes along with this plan, but is its main instigator. Thus, it would seem that Dogville is not just an indictment the selfish, xenophobic nature of humanity, but also a searing condemnation of the failure of intellectualism to prevent such behavior. The rest of the townspeople don’t seem to think much; rather, they act in accordance with their own self-interests. Tom, his very name evocative of intellect and invention, thinks through everything he does, which makes his final act of betrayal so much more devastating to Grace and the audience.

Yet, von Trier has a final trick up his sleeve once the gangsters, headed by James Caan, roll into town in their long black Fords. It turns out that Grace is literally one of them; she is Caan’s daughter who has run away from her criminal father because she despises everything he stands for. While the people of Dogville thought they were getting rid of Grace and perhaps enriching themselves financially at the same time, their cruelty is turned back on them as the gangsters wipe out the whole town at Grace’s bequest. Before this happens, though, Grace goes through a period of soul searching in which she tries to rationalize the townspeople’s cruel treatment of her, but ultimately cannot. She morphs from a martyr to an exterminating angel, and her sudden shift from sentimental piety to ruthless power broker is a genuinely shocking and cathartic transition. Thus, the film also plays as a indictment of the failure of liberalism, in which the worst of human actions are forgiven via pleas to circumstance. Grace tries to rationalize that the people of Dogville did “the best they could” and that she might have done the same thing had she been in their shoes. But, then, she realizes that, no, they are simply bad people and the world would be a better place without them.

This ending leaves us with a horrible sense of finality, the apocalyptic bloodbath playing as both divine justice (it’s impossible not to feel emotionally satisfied that those awful people get their comeuppance) and further indictment of the human condition. In this way, von Trier’s film works masterfully to work over the audience, playing on their sympathies only to nail them for identifying with the very kind of violent action that was earlier seen as so deplorable. The universality of von Trier’s allegory deepens the work considerably, which is why it’s such a shame that his tacked-on final credits coda tries to particularize it.

Overall Rating: (3)

All images copyright ©2004 Lions Gate Films Inc.


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