Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Dogville is rentlessly, oppressively, and wonderfully unsettling. Not only is it one of the best and darkest movies of the millennium, it’s also one of the most fun — enticingly sadistic and barbed. As allegory, it does fine, although those looking for the “anti-American” subtext will be left disappointed; to whatever extent the film is about the strife within economic underclass in America it’s more broadly an examination of power and human nature, and bleak though it is, I think an astute and properly disturbing one — much like Dancer in the Dark before it. The moral behaviors in the movie are too universally ambiguous to be interpreted as simply as many critics would have it. The rush to decipher Lars von Trier’s targets misses the substance of the film — that is, a classic story of small-town attitudes, mob mentality and subservience. The story itself, even robbed of subtext, is already rich enough.

The film is of course more immediately remembered for a specific stylistic choice made by its director: Dogville has no actual sets. It’s shot like sort of a play, on a huge empty soundstage. No walls, no doors, just some furniture here and there when needed. Even the pet dog is painted on the floor with chalk. It sounds unwatchable, but not only does it lend the movie a unique visual feeling, it allows some story points to be stronger (and more tragic; we can see people going about their business in their usual manner during a brutal rape scene behind closed doors). The film’s visual simplicity contributes to its coming across as a storybook of a place locked in time, which in many ways is an apt description of the town of Dogville.

Trier has packed his makeshift town with unforgettable faces. Paul Bettany finds innumerable subtleties in his hapless Nice Guy role as a frustrated writer and closet psychological abuser known as Tom Edison; the great Chloe Sevigny is all warmth and maliciousness as the recipient of his unrequited affection, Liz; and that’s only for a start. Even Lauren Bacall is there. But it’s Nicole Kidman who carries the movie as the logical, caring, conflicted heroine Grace. She appears in Dogville on the run and is offered a place to hide, first with no strings attached. Eventually, the eccentric and impoverished residents come to take advantage of her and suck the life out of her to an alarming, haunting degree. It’s a movie revealing, with a Lord of the Flies sense of solation, the ugliest alleyways of unchecked impulse. Perhaps no comparison is more fitting than the great American silent film The Wind (the story of a woman crushed, smashed, and destroyed), but I dare say that not only did this one escape the frustrations of the studio-imposed ending and achieve a narrative omniscience unheard of (but unnecessary) in the older film, it even betters the closure desired by the writer and director of The Wind with a truly unforgettable and disturbingly cathartic finale which I won’t spoil here, and please don’t try to find out beforehand if you’ve not seen the film.

Almost a decade ago, Dogville was my introduction to Lars von Trier — he remains close to being my favorite living director. I only occasionally revisit his films because they tend to be so long and emotionally taxing, but it’s always a rich experience. Dogville has a lot of nastiness and misery in it but it’s also screamingly, morbidly funny most of the way through, and its ironies are supremely calculated and sardonic in the best way. In the end each viewing leaves me spellbound by the same basic magic that hooked me the very first time: the sheer force, confidence and engaging literary sweep of the storytelling — whether you’re determined to read sociopolitical metaphors in it or not, it’s a cracking and absorbing tale indeed — then the degree to which its absence of cinematic crutches only seems to make it more cinematic; and finally, Kidman. Is this her best performance? Excluding those precious moments she gets in Eyes Wide Shut, I can’t think of a more sophisticated effort from her — she embodies Grace as believable and all too forgiving, then is able to completely turn that impression around without stretching credibility.

I do wish digital filmmaking technology had been better back in 2003, as a lot of Dogville does look pretty dated in that sense, with migraine-inducing low-res handheld a hindrance for the duration — and I guess the constant scenes of sexual violence wear on me now more than they used to, especially when they are often the subject of the narrator’s inappropriately cheery black humor. It’s only truly flippant out of context, but it does seem a bit excessive. When immersed in this world, however, few things are more terrifying than the glimpse provided here of the darker side of an outwardly placid group of people, made more acidic by how believable their duplicity finally is. Certain moments here are so haunting — the painfully futile truck ride, recalling The Prisoner; the smashing of the porcelain dolls and its later payoff — that to just conjure up the images in your head afterward can give you a start. Few modern films brand images and moments so indelibly.

[Slightly revised from a review posted in 2005.]

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