Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, and James Caan
You’ll notice while watching Dogville that the town doesn’t actually exist. Not in any literal sense that is, but in the minds of the actors and the ideals of the provoc-auteur behind it, the fictional non-town comes fully to life. Lars von Trier, hell-bent on eliminating elements he deems unnecessary in films, has this time decided to completely remove an actual setting from his movie. Instead all of the actors, big ones mind you, walk around a stage marked with condescending street names and flimsy outlines of houses. You can see the entire population, and you often do.
For three rapturous hours von Trier holds and sustains a mood without anything but people, white lines, and some flimsy set pieces. It’s a terrific feat all by itself, but added to the material is a script powered by ideas and filled with allegory. He may have never been to America, but he sure knows how this country sees itself. He approaches the filming as if he were watching a village of ants, often looking from above and then zooming in with his magnifying glass.
When Grace (Nicole Kidman), a fugitive on the run from gangsters in Depression-era America, stumbles into Dogville, she is greeted by a kind yet skeptical village. When Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) decides to be the light in this troubled girl’s seemingly pitiful existence, he must first consult the rest of the village. They decide to let her stay, but only if she earns it by doing work for them.
From this seemingly simple plot there are several allegorical branches. The villagers continue to demand more and more of Grace as it becomes more apparent that the secret she fled from is dangerous. She becomes a prisoner of sorts, at one point literally chained up like a dog. The once-kind village begins to feel entitled to drive her like a slave. As the film takes its course, Dogville, as one chapter title suggests “bears its teeth.” The darkness of human nature takes its form in violent sexual acts behind invisible closed doors along with an all-too-American sense of punishment for wrong-doing. Von Trier isn’t so much after The American Dream in this one, but more mapping out and than dismantling our entire way of life.
“Dogs can be taught many useful things, but not if we forgive them every time they obey their own nature,” James Caan’s gangster tells Grace in their terrific conversation at the end of the movie. Sympathy and forgiveness are a form of arrogance that holds back human progress, this film suggests.
Divided into 9 chapters and a prologue, Dogville in many ways feels like a novel. Narrated with dark menace by John Hurt, it chronicles the town and its treatment of their new prisoner with rich detail. Like a novel, you need to imagine the setting. And even though you can see the characters, the narration often tells us what they are thinking. It’s rarely annoying, but with such talented actors it’s almost unnecessary.
Von Trier has always been gifted at getting good actors to be in his bizarre and demanding visions. Nicole Kidman is haunting, terrific, and all sorts of other things as Grace. She knows how this character thinks, and the looks and body movements often say more than her words do. She is yet another broken down female of huge complexity that this director has created along with a very gifted actress.
Backing up Kidman are excellent supporting performances from Patricia Clarkson, Paul Bettany, and James Caan. Clarkson and Bettany both play villagers who seem more innocent than the others at first, hesitating to demand anything from Grace. It becomes all too clear, though, that these people all have their own ways of manipulation and control.
James Caan burns in the memory during his brief turn as the gangster pursuing Grace. The final chapter and his inevitable conversation with her leads to one of the most satisfying conclusions in recent film memory. You may hate yourself for delighting in it afterward, but when a village does monstrous things to a woman, it must expect that a monster will emerge.
The Dogme 95 film movement is something that Lars von Trier helped to pioneer. It suggests that eliminating the glossy production values and conventions of normal movies and forces a filmmaker to connect with his material on a primitive level. Not many have successfully utilized this movement besides him, and the noticeable cuts can take you out of the moment, but there is no doubting the sheer power his already-provocative material has when he deconstructs norms on-camera as well.
In a movie filled with comments and insights, the narrator hesitates from asking one final question at the end of the movie, which seems to be “Are we, in fact, dogs?” It’s a fairly simple idea with a complicated web of different answers depending on how you view the film. You may think we’re crueler, more complicated, or exactly alike; as with any work of art, and this is one, there is no definitive solution. Ideas, like dogs, howl at the moon with their own special bark.