starring Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Harriet Anderson, Lauren Bacall
written and directed by Lars von Trier
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Movie pop art is enjoying a renaissance (cf Elephant, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), of which Lars von Trier's savagely cathartic Dogville is the consummate centrepiece. This despite--and partly because of--outward appearances belying its status as a movie at all: Chalk outlines stand in for traditional sets, designating walls, fences, rosebushes, even the dog, Moses, of the titular locale, a pious community (is there any other kind in von Trierland?) situated in the Rocky Mountains circa Prohibition. A void surrounds the rectangle of pavement that constitutes Dogville--it turns white to indicate day and black to indicate night. One could be forgiven for momentarily mistaking Dogville for that fourth-wall-breaking production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town that aired on HBO last year; as Dogville's narrator, John Hurt is as thorough and intrusive a commentator as Our Town's own Stage Manager.
The Our Town/Grover's Corners implications locate the film in 1910, the presence of mobsters with Tommy guns much later; the business cards seem anachronistic, but then so do the turn-of-the-century bonnets some of Dogville's women wear to town hall. Presumably in accordance with his idol (and fellow Dane) Carl Th. Dreyer's manifesto--"Handling the theme on the level of a costume film would probably have permitted a portrayal of the cultural epoch of the fifteenth century, but would have merely resulted in a comparison with other epochs. What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past; the means were multifarious and new"--for The Passion of Joan of Arc, von Trier, an Americana buff, intermixes motifs in Dogville, arriving at a sort of Cubist period piece. With tongue embedded in cheek, Hurt informs us that Dogville takes place in "the good old U S of A," while the use of David Bowie's "Young Americans" over the film's stinging coda (a montage of vintage Depression-era photographs) insinuates that all American history belongs to pop--and suggests a sly co-opting of Our Town's veritable certificate of authenticity, the Stage Manager's boast of "So, people a thousand years from now, this is the way we were."
Prefaced by a Brechtian title card ("The film 'DOGVILLE' as told in nine chapters and a prologue"), the 178-minute Dogville opens with a literal bang. Tom Edison (the amazing Paul Bettany, somehow topping himself) goes out to investigate and finds Grace (Nicole Kidman), a metropolitan gal hiding from men in monolithic automobiles. The fifteen residents of Dogville threaten her with exile unless they're properly seduced by her namesake graciousness within two weeks. Grace promptly dons Cinderella gear and performs menial tasks for shopkeepers Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall) and Liz Henson (Chloë Sevigny), sightless Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara), the big family of intellectual Vera (Patricia Clarkson) and lumber-man Chuck (von Trier muse Stellan Skarsgård), himself a city transplant, freighter Ben (Zeljko Ivanek), and still others. "Happy times in Dogville," a title declares after the exotic interloper has successfully ingratiated herself. But the feeling of dread, the thing I think von Trier might be best at (and that Scandinavian filmmakers generally excel at), is a pervasive one; the prelude to chapter six, "In which Dogville bares its teeth," is visible from several "chapters" away.
No discussion of Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, or Dogville--the three of which we'll collectively call the "Martyr Trilogy" (von Trier has his own, ludicrous umbrella term for Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and the intervening The Idiots--the "Good-Heart Trilogy"--and insists that Dogville is part one of a proposed "American" trilogy (Manderlay, the unlikely sequel, will deal with "slavery"))--is complete without citing Dreyer's 1928 silent The Passion of Joan of Arc as a primary influence. For those who haven't seen the Dreyer, it recreates Joan of Arc's trial up to and including her burning at the stake; actual court transcripts are paraphrased, though the production, with its strictly impressionistic costumes and scenery, is, as previously stated, far from historically meticulous. Although von Trier is a disciple of Dreyer, there's besides genuflection real political savvy in the homages he pays to The Passion of Joan of Arc within his Martyr Trilogy: it's a multifaceted shield he can cower behind as we hurtle accusations of misogyny at him (I've always maintained that von Trier's movies are plenty sensitive (i.e., attuned) to women--they're just not very nice), and it tethers him to the tradition of an Important Filmmaker. To that end, Breaking the Waves marks the first appearance of the imperious "von" in his on-screen credit.
In Breaking the Waves, Emily Watson's Bess, like Joan, believes that messages travel from God's lips to her ears, but where Joan took a vow of chastity, Bess, also a virgin at the outset, takes one of promiscuity--and is, as Joan, condemned by the church for her religious conviction. Dancer in the Dark puts its blind yet all-seeing heroine on trial, only to sentence her to death for, ultimately, having the conviction of her beliefs. Of the three, Dogville is the most unambiguously yoked to The Passion of Joan of Arc in stylistic terms, its "visual Puritanism," as J. Hoberman brilliantly coined, tantamount to Dreyer's modest backdrops. But--and here's where the spoilers start flying fast and loose--Dogville breaks the cycle: Grace drops the martyr mantle long enough for von Trier to embrace another trope, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I thought of Brian DePalma's Carrie; von Trier probably had a particular model of wrath, Euripides's Medea, in mind.
A "lost" Dreyer adaptation that von Trier not coincidentally directed for Danish television in the Eighties, Medea is a revenge story that ends with the spurned heroine inciting a massacre through poisoned gifts that cause their recipients to catch fire. Grace and Medea both flee the devastation they have caused in vehicles provided by father figures (Grace in her gangster dad's Model-T, Medea in her grandfather Helios's "chariot of the sun"), while Grace's final encounter with Tom is emotionally evocative of Medea and Jason's climactic confrontation. The relish in their voices, Grace's and Medea's, is the same. Omitting from this conversation admittedly key Dreyer works such as Day of Wrath, it's as though von Trier has, ironically, announced his artistic maturation by reverting to an older leitmotiv: through what started out as self-flattering imitation, he's organically retraced the arc of Dreyer, "Denmark's greatest filmmaker."
Though not an example of Dogme95 (fuelling the rage, one supposes, of Armond White ("Von Trier is antagonistic toward the cinema's traditions") and Michael Atkinson ("[von Trier is a] movie-culture malcontent [and] formal nose-thumber"), von Trier claims Dogville's kinship is with televised theatre), the aesthetic program von Trier helped implement and obeyed, what, once? (with 1998's The Idiots), it ain't rocket science that couched within the altogether prismatic Dogville is a perverse parody, if hollow defense, of the movement's Luddite ethic--more accurately, an anthropomorphization of a one-sided debate, since anti-Dogmatists can't be bothered to denounce that which they perceive to be innocuous. This is where the metaphorical value of Tom's name comes humorously into play: Edison is synonymous with not only the basic inventions that begat motion pictures, but also progress, a kind of technological democratization that can turn rational folk into alarmists. "Today a technological storm is raging of which the result is the elevation of cosmetics to God. By using new technology anyone at any time can wash the last grains of truth away in the deadly embrace of sensation. The illusions are everything the movie can hide behind," alleges theDogme95 manifesto. Thus, Grace kills Tom in cold blood, though not until he surveys the ruins of Dog(me95)ville and concedes, "Your illustration beat the hell out of mine." Grace trumps the town's sophisticated methods of cruelty--she's spent the second half of the film chained to a medieval leash (replacing Moses as the town mascot)--with a back-to-basics ruthlessness.
There's a rather ingeniously-executed rape scene halfway through the picture--ingenious because the open-concept set forces the other actors to go about their business as Kidman is violated among them. You realize you're watching an inversion of every rape scenario ever staged once the tight close-ups of Grace's abasement begin to feel less oppressive than the distant wide shots. It's a consequence of the mise-en-scène that puts you in her helpless shoes--one has no mouth but one must scream when von Trier slides a partition of oblivious townspeople between the viewer and this debasement--whilst connoting/foreshadowing the sanctioned status of her suffering. Von Trier embarrasses us with our egocentrism by serving it up in a voyeuristic context. As I related this passage to a friend, his somewhat banal retort, "It's scary to think what goes on behind closed doors," sparked a notion I had during Dogville that many of the walls around us are thoughtfully erected by the subconscious to blot out our mortality, facilitate the denial of accountability, et cetera. Cutesy? Yes. Invalid? No. The director has, of course, dabbled in the metaphysical before (the two installments of von Trier's epic miniseries The Kingdom are ghost stories), but never so insidiously.
Grace is raped several more times over the course of the picture (I wish I could use the word "ingeniously" again without sounding callous), but this is neither von Trier's standard cavalierism nor typical "more is more" excess along the lines of Dancer in the Dark's 100-camera coverage. Rather, the foundation for Tom's spectacular weasel turnabout is being laid, no pun intended: The only one too conscientious to take advantage of Grace, he finds it harder and harder to reconcile his empathy and his sexual urges. Thrilling in and of itself is von Trier's refusal to commiserate with Tom, evident in the narration's subtle emphatic shift from Tom's point-of-view to Grace's--I was apathetic towards the mob-mentality rapists, but I detested Tom, a walking treatise on the evil that men do. Such an ecumenical conception is Tom that he signifies personal growth on the part of the creator; Tom's repeated apologies for "arrogance" register with a nakedness new to von Trier--or, at least, his fans, not a one of whom would peg him for humility. ("Imp" is the common characterization.) Part of what's alluring about the cult of von Trier, as opposed to, say, the cult of DePalma, is that nobody in it deifies him. You're just engaging in a dialogue. Originally published: March 26, 2004.