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A movie directed by Lars von Trier

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Rage, despair, hopelessness and a bit of a different spice, must be Lars von Trier

  • Mar 17, 2010
Pros: Story, acting, pacing, narration

Cons: Length and it requires much attention, so watch in pieces

The Bottom Line: It is hard to like von Trier films because of what is basically different flavors of meanness, but some of them are worth the effort--this is one.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot.

Lars von Trier is a difficult director who stretches the bounds of emotion in a way that no other director I’m aware of can even consider. He revels in and exploits the talents of the worser angels. In the more mainstream Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark he makes us confront the worst that one man can do to another person (in each case a woman). Friends turn out to be otherwise, so the ground not only shifts around the character but the viewer too. Typically the emotional reactions are rage, despair, or both.

John Hurt narrates the film about the little town of Dogville that is a town of 15 adults and 8 children and is at the end of the end of the road that climbs a mountain. Every character is defined by their eccentricity as much as the rest of their qualities. Tom (Paul Bettany) is the town intellectual, wanabee writer, and gadfly. Shortly after the film begins a well dressed, frightened runner zips through town. Tom hides her by instinct and a group of gangsters show up looking for her. He says nothing about her and Grace (Nicole Kidman) is permitted temporary refuge in the tiny hamlet. She has a 2 week probationary period at the end of which all adults must agree that she stay, otherwise she will have to leave on her own. To help win votes, she makes herself useful about the town for each of the families. Finally the town allows her in.

Then there is a honeymoon period, then the exploitation begins. From here it becomes a standard von Trier emotional wringer.

Think of Dogville as the evil underbelly of Our Town. It looks like Our Town (minimal set and on a soundstage) but, while that is true, the reality is that it limits von Trier’s focus—this is both good, from an economy standpoint, and terrible because it is impossible to be distracted in any way from the horrible emotions the film creates: the rage and despair mentioned above.

As in all the films I know, von Trier uses a combination of stable camera shots mixed with close in handheld cameras that give the effect of being more of a voyeur than any member of the audience already is. Dogville uses this second device more often than I’ve seen in earlier films.

So the set is minimal, the filming standard for this director. There are just two pieces left—acting and a general analysis.

The acting is consistent throughout. Ms. Kidman stands out because she has to, but every other actor, no matter how few the lines does the job you would expect given the circumstances. Were it not 3 hours long, I would say the film is worth watching for the acting alone (I had to watch it in pieces but this was more for the emotional impact than being bored). The one thing that really kept me focused was the narration. Normally this sort of thing is a bad choice—here it helps speed the story along since it covers some of the mundane details that are necessary but would add a significant amount of unnecessary time to the film.

Dogville is first a story of integration. The town rallies, briefly, to help someone in distress. After her probationary period she becomes a provisional member of the town (she works for everyone getting paid a little for each task). She isn’t treated as an equal but she isn’t scorned either. Dogville is a very closed and inbred-by-proxy town, so integrating an outsider is a big step.

Then the police arrive placing a missing poster for Grace; later the poster is updated to indicate that she is wanted in regards to bank heists that took place while she was in Dogville; despite this last piece, the town starts to become suspicious. In order to fit in, she is required to work twice as hard for much less money than before. She does this. During this new semi-slavery the poor father of 7 who is the orchard keeper, Chuck (Stellan Sarsgard) rapes her—it wouldn’t be a von Trier movie if a woman didn’t get misused like this.

In the time from integration to the “wanted” poster, the town moves to suspicion that turns into a mild poison that eventually turns into almost total disintegration. Blackmail becomes rampant. Her attempted escape, aided by money that Tom steals from his father, is foiled and she is accused of stealing the money— obviously this isn’t true but how it works out is why you would watch the film to begin with, so I will say no more.

From here she is seen as an object. Men rape her, women scorn her and children throw mud at her. In very short order the town turns back on itself in an incestuous manner mainly because the population refuses to look at the ramifications of their actions. Grace was the outsider so she has no claim to pass any judgment on the denizens of this hamlet.

The end is a rather large departure from von Trier’s earlier movies. I would rather not say anymore, but if you begin the film, then getting to the end makes the trip less wrenching.

Other Lars von Trier reviews:
Manderlay (This is the sequel to Dogville)
Element of Crime


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day

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More Dogville reviews
review by . May 18, 2006
Pros: Nicole Kidman as usual.     Cons: Lack of a real movie set!     The Bottom Line: In Dogville the story got lost along with the walls, windows, street lamps, doors, grass, bushes, and anything the resembled real drama.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot. I do not like live plays; there is something about the fake scenery, and the slow plodding way in which a story unfolds that turns me off. …
review by . October 06, 2005
I tend to pick through new releases in movies much as I do books in bookstores: I avoid the ones in great, showy piles with titles we've all heard ad nauseum and take a more careful look at those with single copies, perhaps at the back of the shelf, perhaps to find buried treasure. That was how I found "Dogville."    The solid cast hinted at quality: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, and many others. Director Lars Von Trier has put together …
review by . August 26, 2004
posted in Movie Hype
DOGVILLE is unlike almost any film you will see. Writer Director Lars von Trier once again has dared to pry open the truths concealed by conventional facades to examine the human condition, the plight of human survival in a world populated by intimidated individuals who only define their public identity by affiliating/identifying with the Norm. In so many ways this story with a Prologue and Nine Chapters is a morality play ad as such it is piercingly poignant and superbly constructed. This film …
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Paul Savage ()
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I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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The latest galvanizing and controversial film from Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark,Breaking the Waves,The Kingdom),Dogvilleuses ingenious theatricality to tell the Depression-era story of Grace (Nicole Kidman,The Others), a beautiful fugitive who stumbles onto a tiny town in the Rocky Mountains. Spurred on by Tom (Paul Bettany,Master and Commander), who fancies himself the town's moral guide, the citizens of Dogville first resist Grace, then embrace her, then resent and torment her--little realizing they will pay a price for their selfish brutality. The town is indicated by fragments of building and chalk outlines on a soundstage floor, stylishly pointing to the movie's roots in classic plays (particularly Thornton Wilder'sOur Townand Friedrich Durrenmatt'sThe Visit). Several critics have stridently attackedDogvilleas anti-American, but the movie's dark, compelling view applies as easily to Rwanda, Bosnia, the Middle East, or pretty much anywhere in the world. Also featuring Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Stellan Skarsgârd, Chloe Sevigny, and many more.--Bret Fetzer
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