Before I try to explain why I liked Lars von Trier’s Dogville more than I ever thought I would, I should provide a context as to why this film has become such a bone of contention-among critics and audiences alike-ever since it was unveiled at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival. Many Americans on the scene professed to despise it as stupidly anti-American. Europeans reportedly liked it more, but what do we expect from jealous old Europe? Still, I didn’t really follow the controversy with any degree of professional curiosity. Nor did I lose any sleep awaiting the arrival in America of Mr. von Trier’s latest alleged outrage. And when I learned that Dogville was three hours long, I considered delaying sitting through it until it came out on VHS or DVD. But curiosity got the better of me, and I sneaked off to Dan Talbot’s Lincoln Plaza Cinema for a peek, promising myself that I’d walk out if it proved excessively boring or offensive. After all, I’m still convalescing from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ .
Anyway, Dogville turned out to be neither boring nor offensive. I found it a huge improvement over Mr. von Trier’s previous vicarious visit to Franz Kafka’s Amerika in the deplorable Björk disaster, Dancer in the Dark (2000). Though only marginally mainstream, Mr. von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996)-his most favorably received S&M exercise to date-doesn’t prepare the viewer for the shockingly abstract and literally board-game-like cinematic strategy of Dogville .
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. Yes, I know it’s evocative of Thornton Wilder’s stylized, 1930’s empty-stage presentation of Our Town , which was respectfully transferred to the screen by Sam Wood in 1940 with a more realistic (but still ghostly and memory-driven) mise en scène by William Cameron Menzies and a mournful musical score by Aaron Copland. Marxist critics in this period dismissed both the play and the film as “funeral parlor art,” designed to lull the masses into a resigned and complacent acceptance of class barriers and the capitalist system.
Mr. von Trier, a self-proclaimed socialist, makes no bones about his aversion to the very idea of America as the universal beacon of democracy and freedom. Yet one of the weakest arguments against him is that he’s never been to America, largely because of his notorious fear of flying. (In fact, Albert Brooks got a big laugh at the 1996 New York Film Critics Circle dinner when he asked, with wicked disbelief, “The director of Breaking the Waves doesn’t fly?” after a telegram had been read from Mr. von Trier apologizing for his absence from the ceremony.)
That being said, I doubt that Mr. von Trier would feel impelled to replicate the sensitive and sympathetic study of the American people that Alexis de Tocqueville undertook in the nineteenth century, even if he decided to come over and stay awhile. But is he really talking about America in Dogville ? I don’t think so.
From the very beginning of the film, there is something altogether too grotesque about the checkerboard town of Dogville, ostensibly a former mining community in the Rocky Mountains during the Great Depression. The residents number 15 in a hardscrabble township with no theater, movie house, barbershop or church. By contrast, the Stage Manager in Wilder’s Our Town made a big to-do about the class differences between the Protestant and Catholic citizens of Grover’s Corners, N.H. So what is so American about Dogville? Is it being stuck in one place and being unable to get out, like the media-manipulated citizens of Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998)? Now that was an anti-American film-as in Dogville , there was the denial of the basic national trait of perpetual movement in search of new opportunities that has made Americans so uncontrollably restless and reckless, for better or worse.
Aside from the apple orchard and a cottage industry in kitschy figurines, there is no discernible economic underpinning to the lives of Dogville’s 15 inhabitants. Of course I realize that it’s a fable or an allegory, but of what? By springing some real-life lower-depths imagery for his film’s final credits-of the Great Depression and African-American ghetto life since-Mr. von Trier seems to establish a retroactive period provenance for his nine-chapter saga of ravaged and ravished innocence. Dogville is, on its surface, about the America of the 30’s, the America of bread lines, the America of the gangsters with their big cars and tommy guns immortalized and exported around the world by Hollywood. Yet if Mr. von Trier knows little about America today beyond its currently aggressive foreign policy, he probably knows even less of 30’s America outside of what he once gleaned in Copenhagen movie houses.
Why, then, should we look at Dogville ? Simply because it’s there, in all its three-hour-long presumed arrogance, and you’ve got to see if this quirky director has pulled it off without flinching. As I watched experienced performers opening and closing doors that weren’t there as if they were auditioning for the Actors Studio, I could sympathize with the critic who complained that it was like watching a high-school play. The smell of ham over the footlights is everywhere-but, gradually, the sense of a story with an arc begins to take hold.
It is time for me again to warn my readers who haven’t yet seen the film to turn away from the rest of the column, because I can’t possibly explain what I like about Dogville without giving the plot away. Let me just say before you leave that I found the ending of the film richly satisfying and revelatory.
The style of Dogville would seem to be the antithesis of Dogme95, a cinematic philosophy devised by Mr. von Trier as an alternative to the overdigitalized Hollywood blockbusters. Dave Kehr described the genesis of this movement in the March 21 New York Times : “On March 20, 1995, the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier stood up at a conference in Paris on the 100th anniversary of the cinema and tossed handfuls of bright red pamphlets into the audience. ‘It seems to me that for the last 10 years film has been rubbish,’ Mr. von Trier proclaimed. ‘So my question was, what can we do about this?’ His answer was Dogme95, a new film movement, born half in facetiousness and half in seriousness, whose rules were spelled out in the flyers as ‘The Vow of Chastity.’
“Among the 10 commandments of Dogme95: Shooting must be done on location; the sound must never be produced apart from the images; the camera must be handheld; the film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc.); optical work and filters are forbidden.”
Having out-Godarded Godard with his strictures, Mr. von Trier has now proceeded to violate most of them in Dogville . Yet there was always a little method to his apparent madness; by posing as an obnoxious lawgiver, he succeeded in publicizing the existence of an obscure low-budget cinema around the world, with all sorts of amazing treasures for the discerning moviegoer.
Among the Dogme95 commandments jettisoned in Dogville is the juicy voice-over narration by John Hurt of Mr. von Trier’s all-knowing commentary (translated from Danish into English with pseudo-Jamesian cadences) that’s infuriated many of my colleagues. In the process, however, they neglected to report that the story actually has two protagonists: Nicole Kidman’s incessantly persecuted but ultimately revenged Grace, and Paul Bettany’s self-deceiving writer-intellectual, Tom Edison (no, not that Tom Edison). The monstrous disenchantment involved in Tom’s betrayal of Grace justifies the Wagnerian inferno with which the film settles all its accounts.
I must confess that if you don’t know the extent of the cathartic violence that is to come in Chapter 9 of Dogville , you may weary of the sado-masochistic display before then, the accumulated sufferings and frustrations that make up the seemingly endless martyrdom of the increasingly saintly Grace. At times, the methods of torture are subtle and convoluted, as when a vindictive mother (played by Patricia Clarkson) smashes the figurines that Grace has purchased with her hard-earned wages and at the same time gives her a mocking lecture on stoicism-the stoicism that Grace herself has been patiently teaching the mother’s bratty children.
There are nuances to the sexual violations as well, so that while almost all the men in the township take turns raping Grace, the most thoughtful, blind Dogvillian (played by Ben Gazzara) is content to fondle her thighs. Lauren Bacall is the most strangely cast of all the performers as the town curmudgeon, while Stellan Skarsgård as the first rapist is the most insidiously self-pitying in using Grace’s kindness as a weapon against her.
But it’s Tom who is the archvillain. For all his talk about the “moral rearmament” and his lectures to Grace and others about moral regeneration, it is Tom who turns out to be the most morally bankrupt. And I can’t help thinking that Mr. von Trier is turning his withering gaze of disapproval on himself and all his fellow intellectuals, be they American or European, who have either helped us reach the current impasse or have not done nearly enough to prevent it. When Tom and his neighbors commit what they think is the final act to dispose of the impossibly disruptive Grace in their midst, they are unknowingly and ironically sowing the seeds of their own communal destruction.
Mr. von Trier has seen enough genre movies to know how satisfying this kind of nihilistically poetic justice can be to an audience. This is to say that the big plot surprise occurs when the leader of the gangsters that Grace fled to Dogville to escape turns out to be her father, played by James Caan. In their almost comically tense reunion, they resume an ancient argument about the arrogance of power and whether there is any alternative, people being what they are. “Are they good enough?” Grace’s father asks her in the mocking tones of a Pontius Pilate. Grace takes a moment to think of all the pain and suffering she has endured for so long at the hands of the despicable Dogvillians, and she murmurs almost to herself: “Not nearly good enough.” The order is given: Dogville is torched and burned to the ground, and everyone in it is killed-all except Tom, who is left standing until Grace emerges from her father’s car with her father’s revolver. Tom taunts her with his last spasm of bravado. “Bingo,” he says. “Goodbye, Tom,” she replies, as she puts the gun to his head and fires. “Some things you have to do yourself,” she tells her father as she returns to the car.
I loved it. That’s what you call a Sergio Leone climax.