Lars von Trier’s movies are by no means for the faint-hearted viewer. An imminent sense of hopelessness, nasty episodes of violence, the glooming inevitability of a painful death and magnified exhibitions of sexual pathology are just some of the things one can expect in a von Trier movie.
Macabre, unconventional, provoking and revolting are some of the adjectives that come to mind when describing a typical Lars von Trier product.
However, other adjectives to describe this film also include witty, one of a kind, fearless, multidimensional, independent and revolutionary.
Dogville (2003) is the story of an ordinary small town interrupted by a mysterious guest. As gun shots are heard in the night, the sudden appereance of Grace (Nicole Kidman), accompanied by gunshots, sparks a heated discussion amongst the town folk: should they harbor a fugitive and expose themselves to possible danger for an act of kindness towards another human being, or rather hand Grace over to the authorities and go on with their lives?
Tom (Paul Bettany) who fancies himself a philosopher and writer, advocates amongst his fellow townspeople successfully, so the woman is allowed to stay – as long as she works for the townspeople, they promise to hide her from anyone who comes looking.
It does not take long, however, until the loveable, simple-minded folk of Dogville are exposed for being far from the initial impressions they have made on the viewer, and one by one they start to take advantage of Grace more and more, until the inevitable climax of accumulating acts of evil leads to great suffering.
In many conventional aspects Trier’s movie is already the anti-movie. Dogville came out in 2003 which was still a time of the classical 112 minute length flick, and this movie is almost three hours long. Negating the trends of the 2000s, the tempo of the movie is never accelerated, alhtough the events gain more and more emotional intensity during the movie.
The narrator’s voice remains calm, steady and slow-paced.
Dogville is divided into a prologue and nine chapters, to make the viewer somewhat comfortable with what is about to happen – since all other aesthetical enchantments have been stripped from the movie. There is barely a sound other than the dialogues, the dog, creaking doors, church bells and passing cars; the lighting is monotonous. This is apparently the result of Bertolt Brecht’s ideas on what the function of theatre is.
Dogville is part of a trilogy (USA, Land of opportunities) together with Manderlay and Wasingston, whose aim is the critique of the small-bourgeois and capitalist American society which turns (thanks to its scenic abstraction) into a condemnation of the whole occidental world.
The movie set is a stage with the bare necessities: The lines of the buildings, the streets of the town and a few other key elements are drawn in chalk and labeled. Essential pieces of furniture are then placed in every home, and the rest of the stage is left as is, with the viewer being able to see everyone at any time. The parallels to the stagelike nature and thus the obviously dramatic outline of the narrative are so very obvious – and yet, the way the characters and their surroundings are presented seems ordinary, harmless and mundane. In that way, the symbolic meaning of certain scandalous acts happening in broad daylight is strenghtened even more. (But no spoilers from me)
The increasing episodes of violence against the innocent, the undertone of impending doom alongside of regular townfolk going on with their merry day are contrasted with a steady businesslike narrator voice, which makes the whole experience even more macabre. Ordinary people in an ordinary town are presented with the opportunity to be good and take care of a perfectly innocent individual, but the doubt and fear in their hearts and minds makes them turn pure evil. With that, von Trier paints a true portrait of human existence in the most dark and true colours.
Somehow I am transported back into my last essay on D. H. Lawrence, which started with the quote: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.” Sometimes, seemingly, everything is connected and all great minds recognize the truth of life around them.
That connection makes von Trier’s movie even more universally relevant – and is another reason why everyone should watch and talk about it.
Even the ending of the movie, which Trier himself was not sure of at first, was directly inspired by Brecht’s Threepenny Opera: ‘And they asked me which heads should fall, and the harbour fell quiet as I answered, All!’ (Mara Marietta) No wonder the screenplay was praised by Quentin Tarantino as “one of the greatest scripts ever written for film” (indiewire).
Since this movie is intended to be a “real metaphor of the whole society” (Auralcrave), it is a decontextualized and separated, its artifice and transparency are obvious by means of the set. These elements, however, are transcended by the actors’ performances: The fact that every imaginary door opened seems to be a real obstacle, since the execution from every side is flawless. On that note I would love to hear about your highlights in the comment section.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that in my eyes the narration, the division into elements, the self-awareness and the insanely excellent acting make it rather easy to watch a movie that could come off as a pretentious art piece or a film trying to be a play. It is none of those things, since all of the elements work exactly as they are chosen.
On the whole, Dogville is a highly disturbing, complex and psychologically distressing movie with layers of dry and dark humor, masochistic charme and extreme wit. It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.
However, you should prepare emotionally before watching it.
More on Dogville, after you’ve watched – because, well, spoilers: