Canal+France 3 Cinema/Lion’s Gate Entertainment
Written and Directed by Lars Von Trier
Produced by Vibeke Windelov
Lars Von Trier is a director whose work I’ve enjoyed for a whole lot of years now. His movies aren’t easy to sit through and they defy conventional description and indeed, I’ve tried explaining some of the plots of his movies to people used to more commercial fare and they’ve looked at me as if I had lost my mind. And I can’t blame them. “Breaking The Waves” is about a woman who seeks spiritual redemption for herself and her crippled husband through prostitution and has what is probably the most baffling and mysterious ending of any movie I’ve ever seen. “The Element Of Crime” is a science fiction thriller about the hunt for a brilliantly insane serial killer in one of the most bizarre post-apocalyptic worlds ever put on screen. And let’s not even go into his most disturbed and probably best known work: “The Kingdom” a Danish TV mini-series re-edited into two six hour movies for U.S. distribution set in a haunted hospital that was Americanized as the highly disappointing “Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital.” Do yourself a favor and rent or buy Lars Von Trier’s original. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it. I remember first seeing it and thinking that Lars Von Trier had to be an alias for a writer I know named Mike McGee as it reminded me strongly of his work and in fact McGee and I spent one night talking about just “The Kingdom” on IM for about four hours. It’s beautifully deranged stuff.
DOGVILLE takes place in a remote, nearly isolated town in the Rocky Mountains during The Great Depression. The town is so small it has only one street along which maybe 15 or 20 people live, if that and even then, seven or eight of them are children. The town and its inhabitants are observed with a calm, clinical detachment by one Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) who claims to be a writer. He actually spends much of his time playing mind games mostly with himself as he’s convinced himself that he’s the town’s intellectual and moral compass. One night while walking through the town he hears what he thinks are gunshots in the valley and shortly afterwards he meets Grace (Nicole Kidman) a staggeringly beautiful woman who is on the run from mobsters. Impulsively, Tom hides her out and after her pursuers have gone he sets about to prove to the citizens of Dogville that they need what he terms ‘moral realignment’ by allowing Grace to stay and give her sanctuary from her pursuers. Grace is allowed two weeks to prove that she is worthy of their protection and Tom convinces her that she needs to show the townspeople that they need her and she them.
Grace slowly but surely integrates into the life of Dogville. She teaches the children of Vera (Patricia Clarkson) and Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard) who are an extremely unhappily married couple. Vera is so repressed on so many levels that she comes across as not quite human while Chuck is quite simply a swine who hates Grace because she reminds him of everything he left behind in the big city. She helps crusty and sarcastic Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall) in the general store, spends time talking with blind Mr. McKay (Ben Gazzara) cooks for the simple-minded truck driver Ben (Zeljko Ivanek) and accepts the friendship of the grateful Liz (Chloe Sevigny) who claims to be delighted that the men of the town have turned their lustful thoughts from Liz to Grace. At the end of two weeks Grace has proved she is a good citizen and is allowed to stay in Dogville. The next few months are happy ones for Grace and for the people of Dogville as well as she continues to become more and more a major part of everyone’s lives and they hail her at the town’s 4th of July celebration as a veritable spirit of life that has rejuvenated them all.
But then the police arrive with wanted posters bearing Grace’s picture and the claim that she has been involved in bank robberies where people were killed. Did she really commit these crimes or have the gangsters who still pursue her set her up? It hardly matters as the citizens of Dogville arrive at an unspoken agreement to exploit and abuse Grace. In a frighteningly short space of time she goes from being the town’s bright angel of joy to their community dog, leashed to a huge rusty metal wheel so that she cannot run away and subjected to nightly rape by every man in town and a slave to the women who force her to perform every filthy task they can think of. She is beaten, humiliated and degraded in various ways and she cannot even count on Tom who claims to love her but is so wrapped in his intellectual righteousness that he cannot think straight. Indeed it is Tom who contacts the gangsters looking for Grace and they arrive in four long black cars full of men with guns, led by James Caan who reveals Grace’s secret to us (but not the townspeople) and initiates the horrifying conclusion of the film which is based on Grace’s new understanding of human nature as taught to her by the people of Dogville.
DOGVILLE is not an easy film to watch for a lot of reasons. First, there’s the way it’s filmed: the movie is shot on a stage-like set where the streets and houses are indicated by chalk lines on the floor with the names of the streets and who lives in the houses written on the floor. There are few props, just enough to give us an idea of where we are and what’s going and that’s it. This means that the entire cast is on film at all times. Even if we’re watching a scene between Grace and Tom in Tom’s house, the other actors can be seen going about their business in the background in the spaces designated as their houses. This technique is particularly unsettling during a rape scene where we can see what is going on but the other actors (whose characters are all in their own houses, of course) are going about mundane everyday chores while such brutality is going on just an arm’s length away. It’s also told in chapters like a novel and there’s a God-like narrator (John Hurt) who provides us with telling information on events that we can plainly see for ourselves and others that we can’t.
The performances are really good in this movie. I like Nicole Kidman an awful lot but she suffers from the same thing here that I thought she did in “Cold Mountain”: she’s simply too beautiful in every scene. Even when she’s supposed to be suffering the deepest depths of emotional and physical degradation she looks absolutely gorgeous. Maybe that’s supposed to be the point, I dunno. But she’s really good here and I especially enjoyed her scenes with Old Schoolers Lauren Bacall and Ben Gazzara who seem to enjoy their scenes with Nicole Kidman as much as she does. And Paul Bettany plays a character who believes that just because he’s got a few more brain cells than most, that makes him better than anybody else. I was glad for what happened to him even while I was surprised and horrified by what happened to the other citizens of Dogville.
So should you see DOGVILLE? Well, it’s not a date movie or the feel good movie of the year, I can tell you that right off and if you’ve gotten this far then I guess you’ve gotten the point as well. If you’re a fan of Lars Von Trier as I am then you certainly should see DOGVILLE. If you’re a fan of experimental film and storytelling techniques as I am, then you certainly should give it a look. The way Lars Von Trier films it on the bare set with the chalked in outlines and the barest of props gives the movie the feel of a filmed play and I suspect that most of the actors approached the movie that way, as if it were a filmed play rather than a conventional movie.
In doing my research for this review I ran across a whole bunch of stuff written about how Lars Von Trier intends for DOGVILLE to be part of trilogy about he views America and indeed, after the frighteningly callous conclusion we’re treated to a collage of photos of America’s outcasts while David Bowie’s “Young Americans” plays over the credits but I don’t choose to look at DOGVILLE as an indictment of American values. I think it shows a more basic horror of human nature: what we’re capable of when we have no restraints or checks on our baser natures. What happens to Grace is horrifying, yes, and when the people of Dogville turn from Grace, Grace turns from herself and that gives the ending of the movie an emotional wallop that reaches deeper than just an exploration into American morals and values. Von Trier is exploring a very real part of human nature in this movie and while it’s a flawed exploration, it’s well worth seeing.
And if you do watch DOGVILLE and like it, Von Trier has filmed the second part of his proposed “USA-Land of Opportunity” trilogy. “Manderlay” is a direct sequel to DOGVILLE, taking up right after that movie ends and continues Grace’s story as she discovers a rural Alabama plantation where slavery still exists.
Rated R: For nudity, brutal rape scenes and the mature nature of the subject matter. If you ain’t got the point by now, let me make it clear: this ain’t for kids or adults lacking a thick skin.