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.