As usual for a Lars von Trier film, Dogville’s release has met with both denunciations and panegyric. Strangely ignored or glossed over in reviews, however, is Dogville’s place within its director’s career, this being Trier’s first feature-length outside the “Golden Heart” trilogy since 1991. The two international successes from that triptych, Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, saw the Danish filmmaker move into melodrama without abandoning the experimentation demonstrated in his earlier efforts like The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Medea. But—despite Trier’s founding of the Dogme95 movement, with its emphasis on back-to-basics filmmaking—the trilogy also established a disconcerting pattern. Each film dealt with the physical and emotional degradation of a martyred young woman, and it was difficult to miss the misogyny lurking beneath these modern Christian parables. The pattern became particularly suspect in Dancer, in which Trier’s failure to expand or question his subject matter overshadowed the film’s revision of the Hollywood musical.
Dogville marks a new phase for Trier; it’s the first of a new trilogy and a radical reassessment of the filmmaker’s previous narratives. It is also signals a more aggressive approach to the question of American injustice and hypocrisy, a topic only half-heartedly touched upon in Dancer. This time Trier is concerned with—as he was in the brilliant second “Golden Heart” film, The Idiots—community dynamics, and Dogville establishes this by opening with a stunning image: an overhead shot gradually tracking down toward a dark, sparsely designed soundstage, with white lines and the barest of furnishings representing a Depression-era Rocky Mountain town, its “inhabitants” going about their work with the haunting miniature quality of a toy village. The skeletal quality of Dogville (both the town and movie), its quasi-Brechtian structure—which also includes chapters that forecast narrative events and a fable-style narration by John Hurt—creates a distanced, analytical mode of storytelling that improves upon Trier’s more bombastic dramatic tendencies. Along with the parody and homage to Capra and Our Town, the formal play abstracts the story from the get-go: this is undoubtedly about America the myth, the democratic ideal.
The plot is classic Trier—up to a point. Grace (Nicole Kidman), seemingly another of Trier’s prototypical saintly women, hides out in Dogville from her gangster father and the police. Her entrance heralds the town’s spiritual development longed for by the town’s sole “progressive” citizen, the aptly monikered Thomas Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), who believes an “illustration” would provide the people with an opportunity to display acceptance and inclusiveness. The allegory critiques mythic American virtues with all the grace of a sledgehammer, and hurts just as much. The heroine’s integration into Dogville gradually becomes a disintegration of economic, emotional, and sexual exploitation. And, of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Even as Grace’s treatment becomes almost medieval in its cruelty Thomas and the other villagers justify their malevolence with talk of protecting themselves from outside forces and preserving the community. Sound familiar?
Throughout Grace’s trial the film proves that its set design, even if not orthodox Brecht, is as devastatingly critical as it is “clever.” When Grace is raped “inside” one of the houses, we see, in the background, Thomas pacing, worrying about what is transpiring. But he and all of Dogville really do know what is taking place, and the invisible walls visually comment on the manmade barriers constructed to maintain communal silence. Really, Dogville is stamped “Trier” in each wounding, crushing descent into physical and emotional anguish. Shot in Trier’s trademark handheld camera style (he also acts as camera operator) and edited heavily with jump-cuts, Dogville’s improvisational style works dialectically against its elements of formal rigor, and produces some fine performances by a veteran cast that includes Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, and Harriet Andersson.
Dogville’s conclusion is so surprising that it provokes us to reconsider its director’s entire modus operandi. The town sells Grace out and gets what it possibly deserves, with Grace and her father (James Caan) debating ethical dilemmas of responsibility and human nature before the hellfire. Grace’s brutal transformation from angel of forgiveness to angel of wrath may seem cynical or extreme, but it’s merely a result of the cynicism and extremism drastically polarizing a self-destructive civilization.
When asked in a 2001 interview whether any symbolism existed in the title of Dogville, Trier replied, teasingly, “It will probably become apparent, I’m afraid. In any case there is a dog in the town.” Question: “Is there a dog buried (meaning: Is there a skeleton in the closet?)” Trier: “One might think so. But it’s not buried so deep.”
As his answer indicates, Dogville unabashedly forgoes a careful, deep-layered approach to its subject matter and instead viscerally rubs at the raw nerves of a world exposed since 9/11. The film is, after all, a polemic: for over three hours Trier relentlessly digs, needles, and scratches under the mythical veneer that is America, bluntly exploring the results of corrupted freedom and community. His brilliance lies in the willingness—the resolve, in fact—to drop artistic niceties and explore one society’s barely suppressed rottenness, the barbarism and ignorance disguised as justice and truth. And because Dogville challenges Trier’s cinematic habits as well as its audience it becomes not only a relevant social statement but also a definitive moment in the career of one of the world’s most innovative directors.
ContributorMichael Joshua Rowin
MICHAEL JOSHUA ROWIN has written for Film Comment, among other publications.