Up front I need to say that I hate Lars von Trier. Maybe hate isn’t a fair way to state my feelings. Basically, my gripe with Lars comes down to this: of the six billion people on earth, you chose Bjork to star in Dancer in the Dark–you asshole. Now, see, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into with Dancer in the Dark, as Jaquay dragged me to see it and only as we were walking to the theater did he drop the bomb that not only is Bjork in the film, but she fucking stars in the three-plus-hour long schlockfest. However, von Trier did have the good sense to execute Bjork at the film’s end, so how bad could he really be?
Simply put, Dogville is amazing. Unfortunately, what the film is best known for is the absence of sets. Er, let’s make that traditional sets. Dogville takes place on a sound stage with chalk lines on the floor indicating where buildings and roads are supposed to be. The actors follow the “rules” and knock on invisible doors, walk between unseen plants, etc. To me, this is probably the least interesting aspect of the film. Would Dogville have worked as well if the actors had been allowed inside actual buildings? If it were shot the same, no, but, who knows, and really, who cares? You watch Dogville for what the film does and says, not for it’s novelty set design (which really was pretty OK).
Nicole Kidman stars as Grace, a seemingly frightened young woman who shows up in the Rocky Mountain hamlet of Dogville. A place, to paraphrase Luke Skywalker, if the country has a bright spot Dogville is the farthest point from it. Before Grace’s arrival, we meet young Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), a wanna be writer and philosopher whose work to this point is quite limited (Actually, that’s the point where I was hooked by the film. Tom’s book so far consists only of “Great? Small?” Which I think is fucking excellent). Tom is lost, drifting and really quite pointless. He has lofty ideals, high goals and an elevated sense of self, but no real talent or even personality to back any of it up. He basically just exists; the one eyed man in the valley of the blind. And then one night while on a self-important existential walk down Elm Street, he hears gunshots and moments later discovers and befriends Grace. Grace is in some sort of trouble, so Tom hides her in the abandoned mine. Quickly, some good old-fashioned prohibition style gangsters show up looking for Grace. Tom lies and says he has not seen anyone, but he takes the head-gangster’s (James Caan) business card and phone number just the same.
The next day at the town meeting, Tom presents Grace, explains her situation (or at least, what he knows of her situation) and asks the townsfolk if she might be allowed to stay. For the most part, the town is wary of the newcomer. Suspicious, even. “Who is this Grace and why is she here?” they all seem to ask. The more important question is, of course, what’s in it for them? Within a few minutes, it is decided that Grace can stay on, but only as the town slave. Now, they never use the word slave, but for all intents and purposes, that is precisely what the town does to Grace; they enslave her. In fact, as soon as they learn that Grace is now wanted for a string of bank robberies (which she could not have committed, since she had been living in Dogville at the time of the robberies) the townsfolk get real nervous and decide to double-enslave her — just to be certain. Eventually, they affix an iron collar around her neck with a bell on it so they know where she is at all times and chain her to a two hundred pound tractor wheel so she can’t escape. The men of Dogville take turns raping her while the women abuse her in their own sick way. I have to say, the rape scenes are where the utter brilliance of the non-existent sets come to life. In other words, while this woman is being raped as part of her daily chores, we can see the whole town in the background going about its normal, daily routine. Quite a nice metaphor, really.
Much has been made about the fact that Dogville attacks America. More specifically that von Trier’s film attacks small town America. All I can think to say is Boo-fucking-hoo. First of all, America needs constant criticism. Secondly, small town America needs it more than the rest of us. Even good-old Ebert gets duped into decrying the (supposed) anti-Americanism of Dogville. He comments;
In his town, which I fear works as a parable of America, the citizens are xenophobic, vindictive, jealous, suspicious and capable of rape and murder. His dislike of the United States (which he has never visited, since he is afraid of airplanes) is so palpable that it flies beyond criticism into the realm of derangement.
Oh come on Ebert! You even admit that the film works as a parable for America. However, if you can look at a small town of 18 people and extrapolate from those few souls a “parable” about our county, why not take the metaphor a sep further and realize that von Trier is on the human condition, not just how sick us New Worlders are. And also, like, I fucking hate North Korea and will condemn it forever AND I will never go there. And I like airplanes. And even if von Trier is “attacking America,” so what? Does a country exist on earth with more xenophobic, vindictive, jealous and suspicious rapists and murders, many of whom are now in the highest posts of government?
Anyhow, I’m here to praise Dogville, not to attack Ebert and his ilk. In closing, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. True, at close to three hours in length, a good thirty minutes could have easily been hacked off and the film would have been none the weaker. But, all of von Trier’s films are overly long–that’s jsut his thing, I guess. Luckily, Dogville (not to mention Kidman) was great to look at, so I didn’t mind so much. Also, why on earth anyone would ever cast Jeremy Davies in anything is beyond me. The man is unfit as a human, much less an actor. That’s almost as bad a decision as putting Bjork in a film. Mercifully, Davies played an idiot. Dogville; check it out. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.