After this bleak construct of experimental cinema, Judge Diane Wild ponders Lars von Trier's intellectual aggression.
Our review of Nicole Kidman 4-Film Collection, published April 9th, 2012, is also available.
A quiet little town not far from here.
Dogville is a difficult movie to view. It's even more difficult to review. Is it good? In many ways, it's brilliant. Is it entertaining? Nooooo. But Lars von Trier is a great director who takes risks with challenging material, and it mostly pays off in an intellectual, if not emotional, way.
Facts of the Case
Grace (Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge) is a mysterious fugitive who finds refuge from gangsters in Dogville, a depression-era Colorado town of 15 adults, some children, and a dog. Resident philosopher Tom (Paul Bettany, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) believes Dogville needs to learn acceptance through "moral rearmament." His technique is through illustration, and Grace is his model. He convinces the insular townspeople to let her prove herself worthy of their protection, and encourages her to show her true face so they can learn to like her. The town, however, values repression, not revelation.
Though initially reluctant to accept Grace or the labor she offers in return for their sacrifice, they are convinced to let her do the chores they don't need doing, then find she is indispensable. She teaches the children of stifled intellectual Vera (Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent) and her silent and crude husband Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard, Breaking the Waves). She works in the orchards, tends the shop of Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), visits blind Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara, Hysterical Blindness), and cooks for truck driver Ben (Zeljko Ivanek, Unfaithful). They eventually warm to her, and Tom even falls in love with her—in a peculiarly intellectualized way, of course.
When the gangsters step up their efforts to find her, she is forced to work harder and harder to compensate for the added danger to the townspeople. They become increasingly hostile and manipulative, until she finally becomes their unpaid servant and sexual slave.
Less a story than a philosophical treatise, Dogville is a three-hour lesson in moral weakness and experimental filmmaking. It is influenced by the Dogme 95 movement—a manifesto co-founded by director and writer von Trier. With its rejection of props, costumes, additional sound and lighting, and its use of handheld cameras, Dogme was intended to strip away the traditional language of film and inspire greater creativity.
While it's not strictly a Dogme movie, Dogville breaks conventions and adopts others in interesting ways. It was filmed in sequence on digital video rather than film, and von Trier resisted the urge to reshoot scenes if it would break the continuity.
The first thing we notice is the set, or lack thereof. Dogville was filmed on an undisguised soundstage, with crude white outlines sketched on the floor to indicate the boundaries of houses, and text labeling the buildings and streets. The actors mime opening doors, and sound effects fill in the gaps.
The lighting design is static, causing actors' faces to pass through light and shadow as they move. The background is either solid white or black beyond the boundaries of the town, so we are treated to shots of Grace's face luminous against the stark white, or Tom's pensive one shadowed by darkness.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is unhampered by the lack of set design, creating innovative shots including a gorgeous one of Grace as seen through gauzy canvas, lying in the back of a truck among cartons of apples. The striking and earthy image is used on the DVD menu screen and is truly one of the most beautiful shots captured on screen.
The actors give mannered and raw performances that serve the movie perfectly, since the characters work as philosophical constructs more than psychologically realistic human beings. Kidman gives a heartbreaking and beautiful performance despite the constraints, and Bettany, Skarsgard, and Bacall in particular are convincing in their shifting affections towards Grace.
The story's simplicity belies its pretensions. It's divided into a prologue and nine chapters, with a "once upon a time" voice-over by John Hurt. It's as if Tom, the pedant and aspiring writing, had finally succeeded in completing a book, and von Trier translated it for the screen.
Much has been made of the film's anti-Americanism. While it is certainly a critique, the allegory of the town as the U.S. goes only so far, and is not the only or even the most interesting interpretation. In this view, Dogville is an indictment of a repressive society that fears outsiders and uses its power against them and its own weaker members. The closing credits, with David Bowie's "Young Americans" blaring over photos of 1930s poverty, highlights, bolds, and then italicizes the point.
But Dogville is more an exploration of revenge versus forgiveness, of Old Testament wrath versus New Testament reconciliation. The townspeople turn away from Grace and, by doing so, turn away from grace. Should she exact an eye for an eye, or forgive them for they know not what they do? We may cheer at the apocalyptic ending, but Dogville doesn't want us to get away with that satisfaction. It prods us to examine the false dichotomy of acceptance versus vengeance. We realize that neither of Grace's final two choices are morally acceptable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite its intriguing technique and premise, there is a moment after which I found the film almost unbearable to watch. I won't give away that plot point, but I suspect many viewers will have their own. There are several turning points to choose from, from the initial rape scene on, when the despair is unrelenting and the moral message hammered home.
The fact that the movie was shot on digital video rather than film gives it a rough appearance, and the color palette is muted, but these are a result of the director's style choices rather than the DVD transfer. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is barely necessary, since the audio sounds mostly mono until the blazing climax.
The only extra is a commentary with von Trier and Anthony Dod Mantle, which proceeds as if you've already done your homework. They talk about the next two films as though every viewer knows that Dogville is the first of a planned trilogy called USA-Land of Opportunities. They also make casual references to Dogme that won't help to explain the concept to the uninitiated. Still, it's highly informative and entertaining, particularly in the duo's unflinching comments about conflict on the set and the logistics of preserving von Trier's vision. They are often surprisingly critical of the cast and each other, though they seem to have an easy rapport.
What's not included on the Region 1 DVD? Everything else. Von Trier created a "confession room" on set where cast and crew could vent about the difficult shoot on tape, but this does not appear. Neither are there any behind-the-scenes features or interviews, which could have been fascinating for glimpses into a non-conventional filmmaking style.
Fans of the Danish director will definitely want this von Trier-style masterpiece in their collection. Film buffs will want to see the inventive and thought-provoking genius of the movie. But the casual viewer may find this a painful three hours.
The court is too depressed after witnessing Lars von Trier's bleak world view to admonish him. Lions Gate is sentenced to watch this film over and over again for neglecting the DVD extras on a movie so worthy of analysis.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by director Lars von Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle
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