The Movie Review: 'Dogville'

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Almost a decade ago, Danish director Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which produced an "indisputable set of rules" for filmmakers called "The Vow of Chastity." Among its ten commandments: "Shooting must be done on location"; "The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa"; "The camera must be hand-held"; "Special lighting is not acceptable."

The Dogme manifesto was always a bit goofy, and better understood as a cri de coeur against overproduced Hollywood junk than as a practical guide to filmmaking. Indeed, only one of von Trier's subsequent movies (1998's The Idiots) received the Dogme stamp of approval. But with Dogville, an anti-American fable/diatribe released on video this week, von Trier has scrapped virtually every element of the creed he helped establish.

Set in America during the Depression (period films are another Dogme no-no), Dogville was filmed on an almost bare soundstage in Sweden, and features a variety of sound, visual, and lighting effects. While a number of critics have suggested that the film's spare look adheres to the minimalist spirit of Dogme, that's absurd: Dogme demanded that the filmmaker use minimalist techniques, not that he achieve a minimalist aesthetic. Von Trier's apparent renunciation of Dogme is both a good and a bad thing: Dogville's self-conscious and occasionally inspired theatricality reveals the movement's "vows" as the artistic handcuffs they were. Unfortunately, the film also offers a compelling example of the very danger that Dogme warned against, of placing artifice above truth.

Dogville is a parable about the human (and particularly American) capacity for malice and hypocrisy. Grace (Nicole Kidman), a young woman fleeing the mob (why, we're not sure), stumbles into Dogville, a tiny hamlet in the Rocky Mountains. The townsfolk greet her with suspicion, but she gradually wins them over by doing small chores and eventually they welcome her presence, even paying her a small salary. When the police come to town looking for her, however, the townspeople decide that, since their risk in hiding her has increased, she should therefore work longer hours for less pay. Bit by bit, Dogville's impositions on Grace escalate until she is the town's slave, chained, collared, and raped on a nightly basis by most of the male residents. It's "Our Town" as the Marquis de Sade might have staged it, a Lake Wobegon in which the only thing above average is the residents' malevolence.

The story unfolds on a single large stage, empty but for scattered pieces of furniture; the streets and houses of the town are drawn on the floor as if on a blackboard. The actors enter and leave imaginary rooms through imaginary doors, and wander past an imaginary dog and imaginary gooseberry bushes, all outlined on the floor and labeled accordingly ("Elm Street," "Ma Ginger's Shop," etc.). It sounds like a tiresome conceit, and it's true that it can't sustain the wanton excess of the film's three-hour running time. But von Trier and his cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, provide moments of real visual brilliance. On occasion, the camera peers down on the town as if from a great height, with all the characters visible going about their lives like pieces in a board game. (This effect was managed by the very un-Dogme procedure of digitally stitching together a large number of individual shots from above.) When dandelion-like seeds blown from a far-away meadow (and, later, snowflakes) gently fall upon the town, the effect is lovely. The barren stage also emphasizes the film's allegorical qualities. When Grace is first raped, and the neighbors go about their business mere feet away, separated from her only by invisible walls, the sense of intimacy and indifference is almost overwhelming.

But if Dogville's rejection of verisimilitude is key to its visual successes, it's also at the root of its narrative and philosophical failures. Much has been made of the fact that von Trier made Dogville without ever having set foot in the United States. Of greater consequence, however, is his apparent unfamiliarity with American vernacular. Von Trier wrote the script for Dogville in Danish and asked the translator who put it into English to maintain the original rhythms. The result is a rural American patois that will sound authentic only to moviegoers in Copenhagen. It doesn't help that the cast, while exceptional, is heavily stocked with non-American actors (including Stellan Skarsgaard, Paul Bettany, Harriet Anderssen, and Zeljko Ivanek). Skarsgaard is a fine actor, but it's impossible not to notice that the accent of his man-of-the-soil character hails from soil several thousand miles east of the Rockies. Bettany, who plays the town intellectual and Kidman's erstwhile protector, sounds at times like a cartoon rube ("I wulden go up there if I were you") and at others like a grad student ("I think I've done a pretty good analysis of the folks in this town. I think I understand them in a meaningful way"). Even the film's American actors succumb: Cleo King, in the role of a black housekeeper, veers from minstrel-show pronunciation that no American director would touch ("Well if Massa Tom think this is right fo' us and fo' the community, den that'll do fo' me") to the Queen's English ("If I'd displayed the same indifference to the timing of my chores, I'd be in for a whipping"). The jumble of accents and idioms often resembles nothing quite so much as the imaginary dialect--call it High Hick--that the Coen brothers employed to hilarious effect in Raising Arizona. (The difference is that they were doing it on purpose.) Adding to the multi-front linguistic assault is a tendentious and incessant voiceover by John Hurt, who refers to law enforcement as "law enforcers" and the town as a "township." Kidman, thankfully, is spared an inane accent--her Grace is a woman of the world, or at least the world outside Dogville--and she approaches her role with dignity and commitment. Sadly, that role consists of being little more than a mannequin for the town's abuse, a porcelain punching bag who does not develop in any meaningful way until the end of the film, at which point she undergoes an abrupt and utterly unconvincing conversion from saint to sinner. Given the near-empty stage, Dogville needed the dialogue and performances to animate its American Anytown; instead they accomplish the opposite, banishing any hint of life or plausible sense of place.

This would not be so problematic if Dogville were a film that just happened to be set in the United States. But it's not. As von Trier has made abundantly clear both in interviews and in the film itself, Dogville is a film about the United States. Bettany's character, who most clearly represents the town's ingenious, ingenuous hypocrisy, is named Tom Edison, Jr. The movie famously concludes with photographs of U.S. poverty by Dorothea Lange and others, set to Bowie's "Young Americans." (The song appears to have been chosen solely because it has the word "American" in its title; presumably von Trier couldn't get the rights to "Born in the U.S.A.") These touches are not, as many of Dogville's defenders argue, mere provocations, incidental to a deeper message about the universal human capacity for evil. Indeed Von Trier explicitly rejects that interpretation late in the film when Bettany announces he intends to write a book, perhaps even a trilogy, about the cruelty of a town just like Dogville. "Why not just call it Dogville?" Kidman asks. "No, no," he replies. "It has to be universal." Unlike Bettany, von Trier does not share this concern.

Dogville is also the first of a trilogy, however. (Von Trier calls it the "U.S.A. trilogy," dubbing Dogville the "U.") The second installment, entitled Mandalay and set in Louisiana, will be about slavery. But there's still a great deal of confusion on the subject of what exactly Dogville was about. Though it shares the religious trappings of earlier von Trier films--the martyred women, the Job-like suffering--Dogville is not about original sin or redemption or God's mercy. It's about capitalism. Grace's downfall begins when the town performs a cost-benefit analysis of her presence following the visit by the police, and Bettany suggests a "quid pro quo" remedy. Thereafter, all Grace's dealings with the townsfolk are transactive, culminating with the town's decision to "sell" her to the gangsters. (By then, she is forced to drag around a heavy wheel--a symbol of commerce.) This also explains why, unlike her predecessors in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, Grace does not die in a state of all-forgiving grace and innocence but instead seeks violent retribution: She is not a creature of God but ultimately, like the impoverished residents of Dogville, a victim of capitalism. (As von Trier told The New York Times, "I can't deny that I am by heart a socialist, and therefore the American system as I see it would make a situation like this more probable, maybe push people more quickly to the wrong side.")

Critiquing American capitalism as severe and uncaring has a great history in film as well as politics, of course. But von Trier's entry is so vicious in tone, so exaggerated in metaphor, that it's all but impossible to take it seriously. Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark mapped similarly bleak terrain, but both still contained music and sunlight, kindness and love, hope and forgiveness. One might have imagined that Dogville, a film more political than existential and one aimed at a more particular target, would have taken still greater pains to establish the presence of good amidst evil. Instead it does the opposite, blasting away any sign of humanity until the moral landscape is as barren as the stage.

If anything, von Trier's depiction of capitalism as sexual slavery suggests less his deep concern with the former than a failure to appreciate the severity of the latter. Von Trier has been accused of this before, especially after Breaking the Waves, in which the heroine ascends to heaven as a reward for allowing herself to be sexually assaulted to death. Those looking for signs that von Trier is insensitive to the power of such scenarios may find it in the director's commentary available on the Dogville DVD. During the first rape sequence, in which Skarsgaard forces himself on Kidman, von Trier has little comment except to note, chuckling, "She is kind of lying with her head through a wall" and "Stellan loves to be naked."

Von Trier probably recognizes that without the visceral shock and titillation of the rapes--if, say, Kidman's abuse had extended only to indentured servitude--he would scarcely have had a movie at all; there would've been nothing to distract from the straitjacketed performances and undergraduate politics. In the Dogme 95 manifesto that he coauthored, von Trier decried the current film scene as "an illusion of pathos and an illusion of love." With Dogville, von Trier manages only half that.

The Home Movies List: Cinema v. capitalism

Sullivan's Travels (1941). Preston Sturges's masterpiece, a humane picaresque about American poverty that perfectly balances humor and pathos in three chapters of ascending seriousness. It doesn't hurt that Veronica was never lovelier.

The Bicycle Thief (1948). Take note, Lars: This is what a fable about the cruelty of capitalism looks like. By focusing on human details, on the small and careless nature of even the greatest injuries, Vittorio de Sica evokes both a strong sense of place and an air of universality.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). A modern tale of survival of the fittest (second prize: steak knives). Evidence--along with The Verdict, Ronin, and others--that Mamet is a better writer when someone else is directing.

The Full Monty (1997). Overpraised at the time, but a film that has worn surprisingly well (better, for instance, than Brassed Off, the other mid-90s British tragicomedy about industrial dislocation). Robert Carlyle, who in Trainspotting a year earlier had played perhaps the scariest thug since Ray Liotta in Something Wild, shifted gears effortlessly to play hapless, winsome Gaz, reminding us again that there is a craft called acting.

Gosford Park (2001). A sociological exploration posing as a comedy of manners posing as a murder mystery. In recent years, only John "Two Americas" Edwards has done as fine a job of contrasting the world of wealth with the world of work. The cast is first-rate and (with the exception of Stephen Fry's lamentably buffoonish detective) in top form.

This post originally appeared at TNR.com.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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