It’s been nearly ten years since Dogville debuted in theaters. I remember wrestling with where to place it in my Top 10 back then, when notable competitors included Before Sunset, Maria Full Of Grace, Bad Education, Closer, and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Those films all made my Top 10, but in 2004, the film I admired the very most wasn’t so immediately obvious as it is in most years. I had to mull it over for a bit.
As you may have figured out, I placed it at #1 — it was so unique and hard to categorize. It either felt that it had to be #1 or not on the list at all. It’s that strange of a movie — at least, it was back then. In 2004, Lars Von Trier was best known for Breaking The Waves and Dancer In The Dark, and Dogville similarly punished a guileless female protagonist. Though it’s hard to imagine, it punished her even more.
Dogville is the story of Grace (Nicole Kidman), whose name suggest the very purity that nearly all of Von Trier’s heroines possess. She arrives in a small town hunted by gangsters, with nowhere else to turn. And the people of Dogville take her in. Sounds warm and cozy, right?
Narrated in a sing-songy, storybook way that could just as easily fit Babe, everything starts off just peachy. Dogville is an idyllic (though quite poor) small town in the Rocky Mountains with only a handful of quaint citizens, including the old blind man, the dim-witted church lady, the town drunk, and so on. The closest thing to a leader is the self-appointed town intellectual Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany). The citizens of Dogville are reluctant to take in a potentially dangerous fugitive, but humble Grace quickly works her way into their good, um, graces, by doing any menial task they ask of her. As time goes on, however, what they ask of her increases exponentially… until they’re no longer asking at all. (The cast is a total powerhouse, including Paul Bettany, James Caan, Philip Baker Hall, Patricia Clarkson, Lauren Bacall, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Davies, and Chloe Sevigny.)
The most notable novelty in Dogville is the minimalism of its set — few of the buildings actually have visible walls or roofs, although all the characters act as though they do. We see them turn doorknobs that are not actually there. It’s like a really fucked up game of charades. While this obviously makes for a surreal viewing experience, something about this effect only enhances (rather than lessens) the dramatic weight of what happens as the story unfolds. It feels somehow less artificial with only the bare minimum props included, forcing us to focus on what’s important rather than be distracted by set dressings. In a God’s eye view from above (which Von Trier shoots often), we can see into every home in Dogville. We view a rape happening in one home and simultaneously view what everyone else in town is doing that moment, though they remain oblivious.
It’s this element that made Dogville so fresh and exciting in 2004, even if thematically, the material was pretty familiar to anyone who’d seen Von Trier’s previous films. In the time since, I still don’t think there’s been another film quite like it.
And yet it’s interesting viewing Dogville nine years later, because of two factors:
One, because Von Trier has worn out his welcome with many filmgoers (including myself, more or less) by hitting the same punishing notes repeatedly ever since, in films from Antichrist to Melancholia. (They’re about as pleasurable as they sound.) It’s hard to get too excited about a new Lars Von Trier film now, since they’re so predictably punishing. He’s perhaps our most sadistic filmmaker, right next to Michael Haneke. (These guys should really team up once, just to spice things up.) It’s not that I don’t still respect him, but I have a lot less interest in what he has to say these days.
Dogville was intended as a criticism of America. Not just small-town America in the 1930s, but America as a whole, now and forever. (Many of Von Trier’s films hit this note, too.) Perhaps it wasn’t as obvious before the economic crisis, but now it’s easy to see the way Grace, who essentially “immigrates” to Dogville without any resources, is exploited. The little town of Dogville seems welcoming at first, but soon all those who are more privileged than she is — in this case, everyone in town — is willing to use and abuse her for their own gain. When things go south, they’re quick to distrust her and then punish her for the ways she attempts to protect herself — and any number of comparisons can be drawn to immigrants, low-income minorities, Occupy Wall Street-ers, or anyone who’s ever been screwed by a system they couldn’t fight. Von Trier doesn’t make his point about America gently, and as someone who’s never been here, one could argue he shouldn’t have much say at all. But in the wake of that awful fucking recession, wasn’t he kind of right?
What makes Dogville unique in Von Trier’s oeuvre is its delightfully over-the-top ending, a sequence of vengeance that would blow even Quentin Tarantino’s mind. Grace is no martyr, at least, not by the end. The film’s minimalist approach might be the only thing that renders this ending palatable — if it were too realistic, it might just be in poor taste. Yet the very theatricality of the sets just heightens the revenge fantasy wish fulfillment that closes the film. It’s probably just Von Trier criticizing American violence, but it’s also what makes Dogville, for all its Dogma 95 minimalism, so cinematic. It’s maybe the only time Lars Von Trier has ever given the audience exactly what they wanted, on a base level.
That said, Dogville may have been a turning point for Von Trier. Or at least, in audiences’ willingness to go along with his torment of women. Following Dogville, he made the sequel Manderlay, which was not well received (and which Nicole Kidman wisely chose not to reprise her role in, sending Bryce Dallas Howard to Hell in her stead). Antichrist had many calling it torture porn, while Melancholia was both adored and reviled. He certainly still has his ardent admirers, yet I’d say his popularity has waned over the past decade. It has with me, to a degree. (The awkward Nazi sympathizing statements that got him kicked out of Cannes didn’t help.)
Would I still name it as my #1 film of 2004? Hard to say. But that’s what makes a Top 10 list worthwhile — it’s a time capsule. I certainly still think it’s a worthwhile film and an original one, and while not every single moment rings true (Grace’s conversation with her gangster father is rather on-the-nose), the film is still surprisingly brutal considering that there is no actual bloodshed on screen. (Unless you count invisible blood — just another prop that’s implied but never visualized.) Dogville makes a similar point to Haneke’s Funny Games, yet in a way that’s not quite so unappetizing. Until recently, I hadn’t revisited it since 2004, because it’s not a film that requires or invites too many viewings. Maybe once a decade or so.
In other words: Dogville. a nice place to visit, but I definitely wouldn’t want to live there.