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    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.


    (Originally reviewed at the New York Film Festival in October 2003.)

    We've been warned about Lars von Trier's "Dogville."

    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.
    in English.

    Related links: Official site
    Opens Friday, March 26 at various theaters.

    New York Film Festival 2003
  • 21 Grams
  • The Barbarian Invasions
  • Crimson Gold
  • Dogville
  • Elephant

  • The Flower of Evil
  • The Fog of War
  • Mystic River
  • Raja
  • S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

  • Festival site
  • 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.

    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.

      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.
    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.

    "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

    Reader comments on Dogville:

  • Dogville   from Meola, Oct 15, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from Patricia, Oct 27, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from Simone, Nov 7, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from Debbie, Apr 18, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from the one not so smart, Mar 16, 2004
  • Re: Dogville/essay help   from danny boy, Mar 25, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Mary, Aug 30, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from hannah, Nov 13, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from beTha, Nov 23, 2003
  • Bored People   from Tschuri Cazzino, Feb 7, 2004
  • Re: Bored People   from Marcio, Feb 22, 2004
  • Re: Bored People   from an american, Oct 2, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Morlot, Nov 20, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from Mary X, Dec 6, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from inge, Jan 1, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from akilis, Jul 15, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Carina, Jan 23, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Sara, Apr 11, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Richard, Sep 2, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from surnia, Sep 6, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Farghite, Nov 24, 2004
  • Dogville   from alice, Nov 8, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from Iulian, Nov 17, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from donal, Nov 19, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from ciprian, Jan 4, 2004
  • Rumours about Dogville   from Funraiser, Mar 30, 2004
  • Re: Rumours about Dogville   from Lillia, Jun 14, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from beTha, Nov 23, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from Baruch, Dec 6, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from sir Charles, Dec 7, 2003
  • Dogville   from Lena, Dec 11, 2003
  • Dogville   from Tofa, Dec 25, 2003
  • Re: Dogville   from sir Charles, Jan 1, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Joe, Jan 4, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Lena, Jan 7, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Tess, Jan 6, 2004
  • Denmar?   from John Callaway, Jan 15, 2004
  • Re: Denmar?   from Funraiser, Mar 30, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from kate, Jan 16, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Eva, Jan 2, 2005
  • Re: Dogville   from emet, Jan 21, 2004
  • Brilliant   from John Callaway, Jan 15, 2004
  • one for the ages   from killian, Jan 16, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Martin, Jan 17, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from djinni9, Jan 19, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from Marion the librarian, Jan 22, 2004
  • The Daughter of God   from Duck, Jan 23, 2004
  • Re: Dogville   from sylvie, May 25, 2004
  • missing some points   from john moron, Jan 28, 2004
  • Re: missing some points   from paul, Jan 30, 2004
  • Wynona in Dogville   from j, Feb 2, 2004
  • Young Americans   from Geezer, Feb 14, 2004
  • Re: Young Americans   from Nik, Feb 21, 2004
  • Of course its a bias film   from Aaron G, Mar 30, 2004
  • Re: Wynona in Dogville   from akilis, Jul 15, 2004
  • Still thinking...   from Marcio V. Pinheiro, Feb 22, 2004
  • Re: Still thinking...   from Adhemar Testa, Apr 4, 2004
  • Dogville as Cinema   from Mike, May 28, 2004
  • [no subject]   from Sofia, Mar 5, 2004
  • [no subject]   from , Mar 11, 2004
  • [no subject]   from , Mar 11, 2004
  • dogville   from Davide, Apr 28, 2004
  • anti-american?   from ej, Jul 7, 2004
  • Re: anti-american?   from cholte, Jul 15, 2004
  • [no subject]   from tony, Aug 3, 2004
  • Dogville   from Dellie, Sep 7, 2004
  • Re: anti-american?   from Manny, Mar 1, 2005
  • poxville   from dredd, Jul 17, 2004
  • Re: poxville LIFE AINT CHEAP, MATE!   from Henry, Oct 6, 2004
  • Thinking or Feeling   from Anselmo, Aug 23, 2004
  • Arrogance always wins   from Oxnard, Aug 31, 2004
  • self-incrimination   from paul, Sep 12, 2004
  • Dogville   from Mark, Nov 27, 2006
  • Dogville excellence   from Carlos Carona, Sep 13, 2004
  • Critique of Western nations, male/female split   from jarrell fisher, Dec 13, 2004
  • Please stop: politics and art are seperate   from jarrell fisher, Dec 13, 2004
  • Re: Please stop: politics and art are seperate   from Jean-Guy, Dec 30, 2004
  • HELLO!!!!   from Sam, Jan 23, 2007
  • Re. Dogville   from Helen, Apr 15, 2007

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