Dogs' little acre
Lars von Trier's fable "Dogville" controversial because of its perceived anti-American overtones is actually an angry indictment of bourgeois society if not all mankind.
By JOSHUA TANZER
(Originally reviewed at the New York Film Festival in October 2003.)
We've been warned about Lars von Trier's "Dogville."
Thought to be rabidly anti-American, "Dogville" upset audiences at Cannes, who, returning the favor, upset von Trier by not giving him any awards. But this is based on a misunderstanding. "Dogville" is not a cry of rage against America it's a cry of rage against all mankind.
|Written and directed by: Lars von Trier.|
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, Jean-Marc Barr, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Siobhan Fallon, John Hurt, Zeljko Ivanek, Udo Kier, Cleo King, Miles Purinton, Bill Raymond, Chlo‘ Sevigny, Shauna Shim, Stellan SkarsgŒrd.
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle.
Related links: Official site
|Opens Friday, March 26 at various theaters.|
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New York Film Festival 2003|
The movie is entirely symbolic, and the symbolism is not sorted out until a key conversation in the very last scene. Filmed on a black-painted soundstage with house outlines marked off in white like the chalk outline around a corpse (the dog even has an outlined doghouse), it feels both theater-like and set apart from the world. The village's surroundings are felt rather than seen. There is an impassable mountain blocking one side of the town, only one road in and out on the other side of town, and hilly orchards just below, we're told, but all we see around the hazy edges is an opaque white blur in daytime and an indistinct blackness at night. This is the kind of indeterminate place where one might wait for Godot.
During the first of the film's three hours, a gentle voiceover describes the simple life in Dogville, Colorado, a clear echo of "Our Town," which is what makes people think of the movie as an attack on traditional America. Into this surnormality staggers Grace (Nicole Kidman), a pretty, clear-skinned blonde in a slinky, fur-trimmed black dress. She's on the run from both mob killers and the law.|
A tall, handsome townsman named Tom the community's bright young "moral philosopher" and would-be conscience happens upon her and wants to protect her. Even after the bad guys and the cops are gone, there's no safe way out, so he wants to give her a place among their tiny, close-knit, suspicious microcommunity. It's agreed at a town meeting that she'll prove her character by working side by side with the townsfolk, helping each one for a short time each day.
With Grace adding a little joy to everyone's life, Dogville is happier than ever but not forever. As the law closes in tighter, the townspeople realize that she has nowhere to go she is, in fact, at their mercy. Perhaps she can be persuaded to work a few more hours for a bit less pay. Perhaps she won't scream when one, then another, and ultimately all of the men in town come to take advantage of her. By the end, she is the dog in Dogville.
It takes one extended conversation near the hyperviolent end of the film to sort out the symbolism of this little fable. (Watch for the arrival of James Caan and you're there.) The essential conflict of the film has to do with the difference between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the merciful Jesus of the New Testament, and which version man truly deserves. Working backwards from there, we can see that the comfortable, bourgeois citizens of Dogville have been given a test, an experiment in man's true nature, and they have failed. They stand bluntly accused by von Trier of being no better than Christ-killers, and the essence of their sin lies in their capacity to exploit the less powerful in their midst. Grace named for the godly quality she embodies has been offered them out of God's benevolence and they use her for their own venal gratification. Even the nominally beneficent but ineffectual Tom, who stands in for the priesthood, does not escape judgement.
Since this is a fable set in an unworldly everytown, we don't have to see it as an indictment of Americans in particular though it may be a case where the shoe fits. The sins of Dogville echo those of slavery and capitalist society over the centuries and could apply equally to a country today that drops bombs on its inferiors, arbitrarily imprisons and tortures its despised group of the moment, profits from exploited labor around the world, turns a blind eye to its own poverty, and executes those it labels undesirable. If those are American sins, so be it.
| ||It takes one conversation near the hyperviolent end of the film to sort out the symbolism of this fable. The essential conflict has to do with the difference between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the merciful Jesus of the New Testament.|
"Dogville" is a challenging movie, a thumb in the eye, to be sure but is it a good movie? Maybe the question doesn't apply it stands apart from the good-bad, zero-to-four-stars, thumbs-up, thumbs-down continuum. It just is. It demands to be seen but not to be loved.
|OCTOBER 1, 2003|
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Reader comments on Dogville:
Denmar? from John Callaway, Jan 15, 2004
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