Dogville (2003): All the world’s a hate-filled stage

My oh my, Lars Von Trier. Is there a contemporary figure in the world of cinema who raises hackles more effectively than the polarising Danish super-troll? Were his super-aggressive illustrations of various social and philosophical issues not enough to put most people into the brace position, he infamously stated at Cannes that his German heritage made him ”a Nazi” and that he only became a Catholic to ”piss off a few of my countrymen” (Denmark is a predominantly Protestant nation). Personally, I think the guy is deeply eccentric and has a pathological need to piss everyone off because he holds people in general in contempt. Or in less wordy terms, he’s an absolute dick.

But is he a dick whose work I enjoy? Absolutely. The Idiots is a brazen picture but it took a satisfyingly blunt and lateral approach to how people with developmental disabilities are patronisingly othered by society. Dancer In The Dark provided a devastating portrait of the U.S. seen as a candy-coloured dreamland through the eyes of a tragically naive and sweet migrant girl, and nobody could forget the visually and sonically stunning and utterly bonkers dissection of couples’ trauma in Antichrist or the thoroughly nasty avant-garde serial killer flick The House That Jack Built. He’s a spiteful provocateur bastard, yes, but it’s loaded with caustic wit and cerebral malevolence that silly sausages such as Tom Six or Eli Roth could never hope to achieve.

His magnum opus, for my money, is the brutally innovative Dogville, an experimental crime drama that is notable for taking place entirely on a stage. A darkly unique visual screed that adopts a deeply cynical view of humankind’s capacity for empathy, altruism and moral principles in general, it remains Von Trier’s bravest and best work and illustrates a talent for provocation that transcends a mean-spirited impulse to shock for the mere sake of it.

It’s the 1930s, and Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) is on the run. Hunted by gangsters for reasons unknown, she is shot at by her pursuers before managing to duck out into the titular town, a ramshackle hamlet located by some derelict mines in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She is found by Tom Edison Jr (Paul Bettany), an intense and quixotic young local who fancies himself a writer on moral philosophy. Assuring her that it’s far too dangerous to attempt passage through the mountains, Tom hides Grace from the mobsters and offers her a chance to lie low in Dogville.

Tom regularly gathers the other townsfolk for meetings on the topic of ‘moral rearmament’, seeking to encourage morale by hammering home the beneficial importance of community solidarity and exercising the Golden Rule. Among the other residents are Tom’s father (Philip Baker Hall), a troubled retired doctor and former community pillar whose shoes he is attempting to fill, Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), the proprietor of the extortionate local corner store, kindly old Blind Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara) and Vera & Chuck (Patricia Clarkson and Stellan Skarsgard), a suspicious couple rearing a brood of recalcitrant children. Tom implores them to show Grace acceptance and kindness in exchange for her pulling her weight around town, arguing that this mutualism will thwart the current climate of apathy and moroseness and inspire spiritual and material growth.

Affairs begin cordially enough, Grace lending a sympathetic ear to individuals who articulate a worrisome outlook, performing practical duties and bestowing edification upon Chuck & Vera’s kids in lessons where she teaches them the value of Stoicism among other things. Her gentle and benevolent worldview and intelligence seemingly arouse some residual fervour in the occupants of Dogville, the unfamiliar philanthropy and optimism of Grace’s spirit inspiring an impulse to change that they never thought possible. Alas, with the beginning’s gangsters still sniffing around and local police putting up posters in town that identify Grace as a criminal fugitive, Dogville slowly begins to panic and proceedings take a decidedly dark turn.

The risk posed to the town by outside elements begins to foster increasing hostility and resentment towards Grace, Tom attempting to quell the furore via negotiation of Grace performing more work for less remuneration. Along with him, the rest of the townspeople start to reveal mercurial tendencies to more toxic behaviour, projecting their insecurities and chagrin onto her, sometimes violently. As Grace’s stay in Dogville takes on a more coercive nature and she is seen as fair game for all manner of vile exploitation, the town ultimately comes to serve as a microcosmic concentration of humanity’s darkest traits, the film a pessimistic document asserting that even an entity of such selfless love as Grace cannot possibly stop the tide of reversion to our most bitterly selfish and destructive instincts. Will she ever be rescued and, if so, can she retain her awe-inspiring creed of absolute charity and forgiveness?

One of the most remarkable (if not the most remarkable) aspects of Dogville is how the superficially puzzling and stilted election to film the piece on a stage becomes so quickly immersive and believable. ‘Minimalist’ would be the mother of all understating terms here, single erected wood panels used to represent houses and the local store and a couple of chairs thrown in for good measure. Everything else, such as the gooseberry bushes that Grace diligently trims and Moses, the town’s collective pet dog, are scrawled onto the stage floor in chalk. While it doesn’t check off enough criteria on the list of Dogme 95 ‘vows’ to be exemplary of Von Trier & Vinterberg’s seminal rebellion, the theatre stage setting serves one of the manifesto’s most important principles, that being to accentuate themes and performances over everything else, and it is thoroughly successful. The score, a rendition by The English Concert Orchestra of Vivaldi and Pergolesi compositions, and Anthony Dod Mantle’s intimate cinematography infuse the threadbare environment with a convincingly elegiac atmosphere.

There have been vehement charges levied against the film of anti-Americanism, owing to its depiction of have-not Dust Bowl denizens acting in a most thoughtlessly malicious and inhuman manner and a wryly acerbic utility of Bowie’s excellent ‘Young Americans’. These facets in tandem render the accusation not wholly un-cogent, but if the horse’s mouth has any clout, Von Trier has personally stated that the work is about how “evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right”. I saw no explicit aversion to American society as much as I did comprehensive misanthropy, these are events that could take place anywhere and anytime were the conditions the same. Perhaps Von Trier selected a Great Depression-era U.S. township as it was the one setting that could accommodate the surprising worm that turns the film’s denouement, involving a brim-hatted, Tommy-gun toting crime syndicate and a memorably staid and collected James Caan. At any rate, it is ultimately a parable of humanity’s foibles than it is one of any particular nation.

Unsurprisingly polarizing, Dogville‘s near three-hour runtime, theatre-on-film sensibilities and dialogue that prioritises philosophical pronouncements over naturalistic characterisation will prove self-indulgent and preposterous for many. This reviewer, however, is in lockstep with Quentin Tarantino’s assertion that, had Dogville been written for the stage, it would have taken home the Pulitzer Prize. A highly original, insightful, moving and furious piece, it has something far more substantive to offer in its examination of corruption and magnanimity than most lavishly produced and saccharinely manipulative pictures. All of the cast, especially Kidman, do some of the greatest work of their career, and the utterly spartan mise-en-scene proves no obstacle to the epic heights the movie climbs to. I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like this again, and I’m in two minds as to whether that’s great or lamentable. However you end up feeling about it, I’ll bet a shiny new nickel that you’ll not forget it in a hurry.

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