There is an unforgettable scene in Dogville. It is unconventional, risky, unsettling, and it sums up writer/director Lars von Trier's rage against human hard-heartedness. In a wordless moment, the camera, the actors, the stage and the silence offer us a sobering observation. All that comes before it has set the stage for this moment, when the movie makes its chilling revelation.
Like Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, Dogville tells a simplistic fable of man who takes care of a stranger while others abuse and take advantage of her. Alongside its biblical references, there are echoes of Greek tragedy, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Flannery O'Connor. With its 1930s Colorado mountain town setting and the pleasant voice of its narrator (John Hurt in a brilliant unseen performance), the film's most obvious allusions are to Thornton Wilder's celebrated play Our Town.
Von Trier is ambitious to place his story in contrast to such essential mythologies. His films have always had an air of self-importance and indulgence. And yet, while his bombastic style would make Beethoven blush, it is hard to deny his visionary talent. With each film, he brings a sledgehammer to filmmaking conventions. Audiences are compelled as much by his innovations as they are by his willingness to wrestle difficult questions, no matter who gets hurt. Dogville, while not his most original story, becomes the first feature in which the ideas he presents make worthwhile the ordeal of sitting through it.
Again, von Trier has chosen a brilliant cast, led by Nicole Kidman. In Breaking the Waves, Emily Watson had the role that made her an international star. Bjork deserved the awards she won for her uncannily heartfelt performance in Dancer in the Dark. Kidman's work, while not as complex, is memorable as well.
She plays Grace Mulligan, a beautiful fugitive sneaking up Dogville's mountain to escape gun-wielding gangsters. She doesn't get far. Moses the vigilant watchdog reveals her to the local philosopher, Tom Edison (Master and Commander's Paul Bettany).
Already you have noticed the "loaded" character names—Grace, Moses, Tom Edison. Abandoning the realism of his previous morality plays, von Trier makes these characters mere sketches, types that lend themselves readily to metaphor. The farmer represents hard-working folk. The truck driver, industry. The shopkeeper, capitalism.
Sensing her innocence, Tom takes Grace into his care. But it's not just charity. Tom wants to teach his town a lesson. "I've got nothing to offer them," Grace protests. He disagrees: "No, I think you've got plenty to offer Dogville." Upon a second viewing of the film, that line becomes positively chilling.
Dogville seems a fine community at first glance—"Reserved but friendly, not without curiosity," says the narrator. But you can't trust this narrator. Von Trier, like David Lynch, zooms past the quaint exterior to reveal the evil at work behind closed doors. Dogville's insular community is populated with self-protective liars who behave with contempt and defensiveness when strangers come to town. Tom sees Grace's arrival as an opportunity to expose the selfishness of the townsfolk.
After Tom talks the town into giving Grace a chance, nobody seems to need her help with anything. She cannot find work. But she presses on, and soon finds a crack in Dogville's cold façade. First, Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall) lets her tend gooseberry bushes outside the general store, and eventually she's invited into each home to serve some small purpose. She visits the local beauty (Chloë Sevigny), the sullen hard-working farmer (Stellan Skarsgård), the farmer's wife (Patricia Clarkson), and Tom's hypochondriac father (Phillip Baker Hall.) Like Amelie, Grace even becomes the eyes of the local blind man (Ben Gazarra, in the film's most riveting performance).
That's when things get nasty and the dark side of human nature rears its ugly head. One by one, the people begin to exploit Grace's generosity. Viewers are sure to become quite uncomfortable with the extremes to which Grace must go to appease their baser appetites and keep her hiding place secret.
Okay—here is where that revelatory moment is played out. When one of these violations of Grace's dignity occurs, the camera pulls back to the edge of town … and we can still see the crime taking place in the distance.
That is because Dogville takes place on a stage without walls. It's basically a play on a minimalist set.
The film opens with a "God's-eye view" (quite literally) of the town, complete with chalk outlines of homes, the shop, gardens, even the doghouse. When we see things from a human being's point of view, at eye-level, we can stare past the townsfolk as they putter about in their enclosed worlds. With this one shot, one of many perfectly captured by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, von Trier captures a powerful truth: We are closer to each other than we think we are. The barriers that divide us are porous, insubstantial and misleading. None of our sins are private. One person's selfishness influences everything and everybody. The audience can see that, even if these characters can't.
The graphic nature of this portrayal of cruelty will come as no surprise to viewers familiar with von Trier's extreme tactics. The Danish director is preoccupied with stories of heroines whose kindness singles them out as a target for human evil. Once her tormentors are made aware of their sins, they would rather destroy the one who shows it to them than repent or seek healing. Only von Trier could (or would) transform Lauren Bacall from a small town shopkeeper to someone resembling Hannibal Lecter in just a few hours.
Hopefully, viewers will get past the shock to realize what von Trier is revealing. He is not merely a sensationalist, but his audacity tends to draw more attention than his storytelling. Dogville throws a lot of fuel on that fire.
Von Trier's contempt for America is painfully clear here, even distracting. The film's biggest flaw is the way it makes such a pointed and specific attack, an approach that lessens the story's universality. Von Trier's never been to America, but in Dancer in the Dark and Dogville he pictures it as a place almost devoid of mercy, love, or kindness, stained with a history of slavery, greed-driven capitalism, and luxuries gained through the exploitation of cheap labor.
It is worth asking whether any of his criticisms are deserved. Like it or not, America's contribution to mythology is the story of the lone cowboy in the Old West who brings about justice his own way, with guns a-blazin'. In Dogville, von Trier brings the dynamic of vigilante justice back to America to unleash judgment of his own. In a sense, he's saying, "How dare you call yourself a 'Christian nation' when you behave grace-lessly to the poor at home and abroad, and when you act in the arrogance of judgment elsewhere?" If this voice of conscience is "anti-American," then so are many of our foremost artists, including the aforementioned Hawthorne and O'Connor—and Bob Dylan too.
To be fair, there is a possibility von Trier is including himself in the guilt of arrogance. Tom's moralizing and self-righteousness could be a stand-in for the pious filmmaker. Tom's the manipulative artist who "tunneled through … the human soul, deep into where it glittered." (These souls do glitter, but more like hell's embers than gold.) "I love you," Grace tells him, "because you don't demand anything of me." But upon gaining her confidence, we're told Tom feels "a fine sensation of mastery … new for him in terms of the opposite sex." He, like everyone else, is assigned blame for the persecution of Grace.
But anyone arguing that von Trier is merely representing human failings will have a hard time ignoring the parting shot of the end-credits sequence, which shows pictures of Americans suffering and causing others to suffer to the tune of David Bowie's "Young Americans."
Another problem—this is von Trier's third story about a gracious woman suffering terrible cruelty. This preoccupation courts accusations of sadism. His heroines seems to have "Kick Me" signs around their necks. Love seems to require them to sit still while they are persecuted to the point of absurdity. While there's more restraint shown here than in Breaking the Waves, I fear that his audience will tire of running these relentless laps around the track of misery.
Still, many defended the wearying violence in Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ by saying, "We have to face the truth of how Jesus suffered." In that case, perhaps we can justify this portrayal of Grace's suffering. She's a Christ figure, after all. "I think I understand the folks in this town," Tom tells Grace, "but when I try to decipher you, I get absolutely nowhere." Sounds like von Trier's own expression of bewilderment at the idea of Christ. Like Gibson, he portrays intense evil to make us wonder at the resilience and generosity of Grace, that "alabaster" saint who exemplifies her name … to a point.
Dogville concludes, however, quite differently than The Passion. Just when we think we know where this spiritual allegory is going, von Trier delivers an unexpected masterstroke that makes this his most profound work.
I will not spoil it for you, but I will say this: Dogville is, in the end, evidence that von Trier is wrestling with the difference between a God of fire and brimstone (what some would call "the Old Testament God") and a God of grace ("the New Testament God.") He poses the question: Should human beings who have been given so much be forgiven for their gross abuses of each other?
He comes to a conclusion that will deeply unsettle Christians. But it will also provoke us to take even more seriously what a scandal Jesus Christ has presented to us—that God would not only love us, but would take upon himself the severity of the judgment for our sins. Dogville is thus a powerful expression of what those who reject Christ must consider as the alternative.
A Personal Note
After seeing Dogville, a friend of mine said, "I think I'm going to start praying for von Trier. When your fundamental image of God is wrong, your view of the world is also wrong, as well as your view of yourself and all of the relationships in your life."
Prayer may indeed be the best response to such a piercingly perceptive portrait of human evil. We can pray for the artist, that he will find peace and a deeper understanding of grace. We can pray for humankind, our nation, and our often-insular church communities. But before we concern ourselves with others, we should search our own hearts. Since we do live under Christ's banner of forgiveness and hope, we should ask to be kept from the temptation to judge others or exploit them. We should admit our need for grace, and seek to mirror his gentleness, his selflessness, and his everlasting forgiveness.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- In what ways, if any, is Dogville like America? In what ways is it unlike America? What else might the town represent? Do any of the characters remind you of people or institutions you know? Does any of the exploitative or arrogant behavior onscreen cause you to reflect on your own attitudes and behavior?
- In what way is Grace like Jesus Christ? In what ways is she unlike him?
- What do you make of the conversation between Grace and the gangster at the end of the film? What does that conversation show us about the filmmaker's understanding of the gospel?
- Why do you suppose the director staged the movie in such a unique, minimalist fashion? How would the film have been different if it had been filmed on a traditional movie set?
- What do you think Moses the dog represents?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film includes portrayal of severe cruelty, including scenes of rape and other forms of sexual and physical abuse. There are brief glimpses of nudity (male and female). The film is only suitable for those with strong stomachs and who have the maturity to act upon their conscience if the film becomes too intense or damaging. (Many have walked out of the film.) Like the great Christian writer Flannery O'Connor, von Trier draws exaggerated and ugly pictures to reach a public that is hard-of-hearing. As Tom says to his neighbors, "I think there's a lot this country has forgotten; I just try to refresh folks' memories by way of illustration."
Photos © Copyright Lions Gate Films
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 04/01/04
Dogville is the latest film from Lars Von Trier, director of the controversial, intense, and inventive dramas as Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. His latest is yet another scandalous piece of work. Setting his film on a minimally decorated stage, as if this was a collection of clips from rehearsals for a play, he develops such a strong sense of suspense and drama that we forget about the artifice we usually require from a film.
Von Trier tells the story of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a young woman who takes refuge in a small Colorado mining town while gangsters try to hunt her down. The town is reluctant to help her hide, since they do not know what crime she has committed. But as they realize her eagerness to help them and bless them in response for their shelter, they begin to exploit her in cruel and unusual ways. Paul Bettany (The Reckoning) and Lauren Bacall co-star.
Dogville gives evidence that Von Trier is wrestling with the difference between a God of fire and brimstone and a God of grace. He poses the question: Should human beings who have been given so much be forgiven for their gross abuses of each other? He comes to a conclusion that will deeply unsettle Christians. (My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.)
"While the style may be off-putting to some and the nearly 3 hour running time more than others can take, the message the film delivers is an interesting one," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The final chapter of this movie is shocking and will be cause for a number of provocative post-viewing discussions. For me, it vividly displayed the limitations of man. Man's initial reluctance, first in extending courtesy and hospitality; and later, his limitations in extending forgiveness."
Jim O'Neill (Christian Spotlight) says "Dogville is the story of a civilization which self-destructs when it loses its moral vision. With his unorthodox and unsettling technique, Von Trier has accomplished something original. And something remarkable. Dogville is pessimistic, violent and cruel. It's the evil twin of Thorton Wilder's Our Town. I recommend it [for adults only] as a cautionary tale, and a bold, exhilarating cinematic exercise. You won't see anything else quite like it."
Von Trier's work always gets mainstream critics arguing, and this film is no exception.from Film Forum, 04/08/04
As Lars von Trier's new film Dogville continues playing in limited release, preparing for its upcoming openings across the country, more religious press reviews are seeing the film and responding.
Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says, "von Trier's dismal drama … makes no bones about the helmer's anti-American sentiments. Dark, moody and depressing, the film is artistically noteworthy, absorbing the viewer—even at three hours—with a well-crafted, superbly acted script. However, the film's nihilistic tone, cruel violence and message that humans are really no better at heart than beasts—more precisely, dogs—is contrary to the Catholic ideal of human goodness and the value of redemption."
But J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) argues that the film is "an exhilarating ride, one that will inspire numerous late-night discussions and repeat viewings. Add in the brilliant ensemble acting … Kidman's brave performance and John Hurt's marvelous line readings as the Narrator, and you have a masterpiece."from Film Forum, 04/15/04
Catching up with the controversial limited-release drama Dogville, Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) responds by taking a close look at the various inflammatory aspects. He explores what some are calling "anti-Americanism" in the film, as well as its portrayal of cruelty to women and the director's choice to play out the drama on a sparsely decorated stage. He concludes, "I'm in the camp of those who love this film, in spite of and because of its challenges. It is the first film I've seen this year that I expect will be on my top 10 list."from Film Forum, 05/06/04
Andrew Coffin (World) had this to say about Dogville: "As fascinating and challenging as Dogville is, the film suffers from Mr. von Trier's profound disgust for everyone involved. The director seems to despise his characters, his audience, perhaps even himself. Dogville appears to be a passionate cry from a man who sees something terribly wrong with the world, but has rejected the only framework that would allow him to truly understand it and to see that its redemption is possible."from Film Forum, 05/13/04
Three religious press film critics reviewed Dogville this week, a film covered extensively at CT Movies last month.
Michael C. Smith (Relevant) says, "The film is not about God's grace as much as it is about a nation that believes itself to be the divine bearer of freedom and justice to the world—a belief that often contradicts the nation's actions toward it's own citizens. In other words, one of the most common and (depending on your perspective) most damning criticisms of America by foreigners like the Danish, Lars von Trier—we don't practice what we preach. The film manages to pack a solid emotional punch in the final chapter when Lars von Trier debates whether such a nation deserves 'grace' or punishment—a credit to all involved in this production for bringing us into the world of the story."
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "As fascinating and challenging as Dogville is, the film suffers from Mr. von Trier's profound disgust for everyone involved. The director seems to despise his characters, his audience, perhaps even himself. Dogville appears to be a passionate cry from a man who sees something terribly wrong with the world, but has rejected the only framework that would allow him to truly understand it and to see that its redemption is possible."
Taking a much stronger tone, Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Dogville bears, at times, an uncanny resemblance to a Flannery O'Connor short story. Like the great tales of the prophetic Southern writer, Dogville is a gallery of monstrous, thoroughly crooked and depraved characters who act only out of selfishness and greed. What's missing … is grace, a key element that O'Connor never neglected to include in her stories. In fact, this film is totally devoid of even the slightest hint of mercy, forgiveness, and hope for its wicked characters. It is, therefore, overwhelmingly bleak, relentlessly joyless, and painfully dispiriting."
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