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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