DOGVILLE (Lars von Trier, 2003)

The abuses of Iraqi prisoners by military and nonmilitary personnel at Abu Ghraib prison, we are learning as I write, were not isolated incidences but broadly typical of American behavior as occupationists or plain bullies both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who knows where else. Understandably, those who have been charged are pleading “the German defense,” that they were merely following the orders of commanding officers, and I don’t doubt for a moment that this is true; but what these individuals who directly committed the atrocities fail to grasp is that they were free to disobey such orders and that the orders they were given must have triggered sadistic and vicious impulses in them without which they would indeed have disobeyed the orders. Their humanity hung in the balance, and they chose to abdicate this humanity, or were so swept up in the powerful authority vis-à-vis prisoners that war and the occupation had invested in them that they failed to curb their worst and most primitive impulses. Regrettably, America and Americans have become, throughout the world, synonymous with this arrogance of power, which the wonderful film Dogville, written and directed by Denmark’s Lars von Trier, penetrates and analyzes brilliantly. It’s the first installment of von Trier’s “American trilogy” (he has since completed the second installment, Manderlay, 2005), following his two previous trilogies, the staggering “European trilogy” (The Element of Crime, 1984; Epidemic, 1988; Europa, 1991), and the “Golden Hearts trilogy,” whose middle film, though, is especially wonderful (Breaking the Waves, 1996; The Idiots, 1998; Dancer in the Dark, 2000).

Trier, perhaps the world’s greatest working film artist (some would give the title to Abbas Kiarostami or Béla Tarr or Hou Hsiao-hsien, or someone else), is one of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement. However, put that thought out of your head. As he has done in the past when the mood suited him, for Dogville Trier discards the rules he himself helped to create; for instance, far from hewing to natural lighting, there is nothing but artificial light in Dogville. (Whether this makes the film a departure from Dogme or something post-Dogme remains to be seen.) An imp of the perverse, Trier is ever ready to dismiss any and all rules, including his own. In truth, we wouldn’t have our Trier any other way.

Trier hates America. His non-Dogme Dancer in the Dark also was an American story, and he filmed it without stepping foot in the United States; nor will he come to America to shoot any part of his American trilogy. Trier’s vision of the American character, as disclosed in Dogville, is so acute and exacting, so dead-on and unflinching, that American audiences had better brace themselves for a withering look into a social mirror. In Dogville, Trier nails us to a T. This will invite typical American mendacity and hypocrisy from many quarters—from those, for example, who will insist that what other Americans did at Abu Ghraib prison, which they deem “unAmerican,” they themselves would never ever do. Trier may be in denial about much that is good about America, but U.S. Americans tend to be even more in denial about what’s not so good. Still, it is worth noting that one doesn’t have to agree with Dogville to find it a fascinating and captivating piece of work.

The time is some time between the wars, probably (given the series of photographs that accompany the closing credits) the 1930s during the Great Depression. The place is a sleepy little town in the Rocky Mountains. Fleeing from gangsters, Grace happens into the town of Dogville, seeking refuge. Prodded by its resident young philosopher and would-be writer, Tom Edison, so named because he embodies American ingenuity, Dogville reluctantly lets Grace in, giving her shelter. Seemingly uncomplicated and gracious, young, beauteous Grace aims to please her new protectors; to solidify her place in the town, she is instructed by Tom to insinuate herself into the homes and lives of the residents, offering each individual job-related, household or communally beneficial work. At first, Dogvillers don’t seem to need Grace to do anything; but, assessing the risk of their hiding her from both the mob and the police, who are also looking for her, the folks find increasing amounts of work for her to do. Indeed, they exact a measure of control over her that makes her their Abu Ghraib prisoner—their virtual slave. Their sexual slave, too, for all the men either maul or molest her—all except Tom, who professes to have fallen in love with her, and with whom she, also in love with him, doesn’t wish to have what she considers unsanctified sex. This is exceptionally hard for Tom to process, since he knows that every other man in town is getting a piece of Grace. What they aren’t getting, though, is her spiritual assent, Grace’s grace; at the proper time and in the proper place, she would like to give this to Tom. Unfortunately, forced by fellow villagers to choose between her and the town, Tom contacts the mob, resulting in a scene of betrayal and brutal death.

Dogville plays out on a sound stage; expressionistic, the minimalist set consists of chalk marks, invisible doors that townsfolk open and close and knock on, see-through quarters indicating homes, a wall-less town meeting hall, a patch of invisible trees (although no elms, even on Elm Street), and so forth. Several shots provide overhead views of Dogville, which includes a patch of invisible grass for the invisible town mascot, the dog Moses. Given the plot that unfolds on this set, one might think of the film as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town Meets Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit of the Old Woman. The film also includes voiceover commentary—another nod to Our Town, although here the voice, disembodied, belongs to no visible soul—that guides us through the thinking processes of some of the characters. The net result is to shift the drama from an exterior to an interior realm. We get to see and hear, then, how Americans think, and how they pursue their own advantage at the expense of others, in this case, Grace. Even bereft of an upbeat economy, the villagers retain the rapacious love of power that American capitalism nurtures in them. It is this love, ironically bred by a system that disempowers them, that corrupts them and undercuts their human potential. With its Brechtian distancing, the film constantly urges us to reflect on its vision of the American character. (Another distancing technique: the film is divided into a prologue and nine chapters, the last title heralding the film’s ending.) I might add that, despite what you may have heard, there isn’t a touch of misogynism in Trier’s portrait of the process by which Grace becomes the town’s slave—this, too, the result of his distancing strategies. Those who hurl such preposterous insults are in heavy denial as to what the film is really about. They are probably also in denial of certain of their own thought processes and psychological mechanisms.

The film is full of perverse visual imagery. Perhaps the most beautiful and voluptuously intriguing image is provided by an overhead shot of Grace, lying face up in the open part of a truck trying to make her escape from Dogville, surrounded by crates of apples and by loose apples and encased by a translucent plastic or glass cover: with its Edenic reference, a chaotic view of her endangered innocence. At the other end of the film’s behavioral richness, there is Jason, the bad little boy who coaxes an over-the-lap spanking from Grace, pleading for her to make it harder and harder. (He later tells his mom what Grace did, leaving out the part about his having begged for it: one of the numerous betrayals someone or another inflicts upon Grace.) Trier casts in the part—make of this what you will—a boy who is the spittin’ image of what he himself must have been as a boy. Big Lars has thus endeavored to have Little Lars spanked on screen, and the moment is as dear as it’s funny, and not a little spooky. In its small way, the moment shows that Grace herself is as susceptible to being seduced by power-focused impulses as are the others in Dogville, and this lightly prepares us for the heavy finale where a gun-toting Grace turns the tables on the town.

Nicole Kidman (best actress, Russian Guild of Film Critics) is superb as Grace, giving perhaps her most sensitive, delicate and intricate, yet powerful performance thus far. It has long since become clear that Kidman is one of the best actresses around, and she continues to astonish. And Trier has given her an unforgettable line that, at the last, coolly conflates Grace and Nicole: “Goodbye, Tom.” John Hurt is essential as the narrator, Paul Bettany is as interesting as Tom Edison as he is dishwater-dull as the ship’s surgeon who operates on himself in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003), Philip Baker Hall is even more interesting as Tom’s hypochondriac physician-dad, and Ben Gazzara is magnificent—it’s his best performance since Saint Jack (Peter Bogdanovich, 1979)—as the town’s blind man who doesn’t miss a chance to feel up Grace. Harriet Andersson, Stellan Skarsgård, Patricia Clarkson, Zeljko Ivanek, Lauren Bacall and James Caan are others in the excellent supporting cast.

Dogville, which is in English, won the Bodil Award as the year’s best Danish film and best film prizes in Italy, Spain, Russia and Bulgaria. Trier won the European Film Award as best director, and his screenplay was adjudged the best at the Robert Festival in Copenhagen.

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