Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dogville (2003)

Director: Lars von Trier
Narrator: John Hurt

I am torn between revealing too much and not enough. I had heard very little about Dogville before I watched it, which is how I try to be with most movies. I don't like things being spoiled for me. I like to keep that childlike excitement that I get when the lights go down in the theatre. Dogville is surprising, and I think that with my theatre background I found it aesthetically pleasing as well.

Dogville is much like a play, told in "Nine chapters and a prologue", about the deepest places of the human soul. The stage has no real backdrop, there are no walls or doors and there are very few props adorning the set. At first the minimalist stage (a little like Vanya on 42nd Street) was a bit startling, but as the movie progresses there are many reasons and many scenes that would have little impact had it been done in a traditional way. Dogville is a little nowhere American town in the mountains with only one way in and out, made a dead end by a mountain range. There are 15 adult inhabitants of the town and you meet each one of them in turn. They are average people in a time of poverty (1930s) and little opportunity in a destitute place where even a preacher for the local church is hard to come by.

The one voice of morality and culture (by his own estimations) is Tom Edison, Jr. (Paul Bettany,Iron Man, Knight's Tale) who fancies himself a writer and philosopher. In the beginning we also believe that he is such a man. Tom lives with his hypochondriac father in the nicest house in Dogville, where there is only one store, owned and operated by Gloria and Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall, who looks stunning). Liz (Chloe Sevigny) and her parents and Vera (Patricia Clarkson) and Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard) and their six children are among the other members of the town all existing, not asking much from each other, and not giving much either.

When a rare bit of excitement in the form of gun shots and a frightened young woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman) enter their lives, they are presented with a rare opportunity: do they reach out a hand so seldom offered to help someone in need who may be in trouble? For Grace, the nondescript village offers a haven, a place she might be able to finally relax, find a meaning for her life, and put the past behind her. But the people in the town are not accustomed to strangers and are naturally wary so Tom suggests that Grace work for them a little bit, helping each person in town so they see the goodness in her that he sees, and in exchange she will get a small wage gathered from the people she helps.

Grace throws herself into her work and is beloved by nearly all the town, showing them things about themselves they never saw before, giving of herself, and asking for nothing in return. But as the days wear on in the impoverished little burg, what Grace gives is suddenly not enough.

Dogville is not so much a story of the town and the events as it is a story of the nature of humanity. All of the personalities and problems in each person in Dogville inhabit each individual person in real life at one time or another: generosity, kindness, fear, doubt, hesitation, desire, hope, faith, joy, love, sadness, fear, resistance, disgust, loneliness, and greed. In this, Dogville can be representative of one person, rather than any town in any city, in any country.

By Chapter 6, the starkness of the stage begins to represent reality, and to show how things continue on in their natural course, while we continue to see what is going on behind the closed doors on houses on a quiet street, in a friendly village, where people come together against outside forces. We are shown, by the lack of doors and walls and roofs, the ugliness that represents all our lives, all our darkest desires, and what lengths we might be capable of to get what we want, the lies we might tell ourselves to justify our wicked actions. We are also asked what we would do, being able to see into the walls of houses, if we were to witness atrocities; would we turn our backs, would we help, or would we participate? If we know someone is hurting, what do we do?

If you've hung in past Chapter 6, hold on for the ride downhill. Dogville, and Grace, take a turn of spirit, several times, that mirror reality to a shaming degree.

I would have to say that storywise, Dogville is one of the best. It is the most complete, most realistic testimonial of human nature that I've seen on a screen in a very long time. It is full of symbolism but at the same time it can be taken for what it seems to be, and can speak to each heart individually according to its own weaknesses.

Dogville won 13 festival awards.


  1. Excellent review. I really need to see this film. I've always been hesitant because of the play style settings, but your review convinces me I need to check it out. Very nice.

  2. Great review. Von TRiers got a lot of flack for Dogville because of its negative portrayal of little America (and since he's never been on United States soil), but I think it's an oustanding and deeply fascinating view not just of America, but any small loosely connected group of people. I

    Funny because I can honestly say that I've never enjoyed sitting through a Von Triers film, but I respect every one I've seen. Breaking the WAves is, in my opinion, one of the most stunning and heart wrenching explorations of faith put onscreen.

    I'm rambling. Anyway, really like your review and would love to hear your take on Manderlay, his followup with Bryce Dallas Howard replacing Kidman.