Produced by Vibeke Windeløv
Starring Nicole Kidman, Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, Jean-Marc Barr, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, John Hurt, Chloë Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgård.
In this, the first of his trilogy USA – Land of Opportunities, Danish director Lars von Trier cites Bertholdt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera as inspiration for Dogville, in particular the revenge theme in the Pirate Jenny song, a darkly malicious tale of a girl who waits for justice for unnamed wrongs done to her and gives the word for all to die, before sailing off in triumph. Like the Threepenny Opera the story is told in 9 parts, following a prologue. Apart from the theatrical mise en scène, there are other similar themes: power, social status, inequality, injustice, crime, betrayal, exploitation and desire.
Von Trier’s most recent film was the extraordinary Dancer in the Dark and he is the founder, with Thomas Vinterberg, of the Dogme95 Manifesto. In this film, while not adhering to the Dogme code, he is as serious in intent as Brecht and as minimalist. In fact, in this representation of Dogville, Rocky Mountains, there is no real set, just white painted lines on a black floor. Seen from above in the opening frame, there is a handful of houses and a main street marked out diagrammatically. There is also the bare framework of a disused mine, an outline of a dog as in a crime scene, and a minimum of furniture so the actors may sit or lie down when required. There are no walls and the actors mime opening and closing doors. However, they load real apples into a real truck and drive a car on set as well. The design is intended to allow us to see through people’s behaviour and hypocrisy and it carries this out well, albeit necessarily somewhat stagily.
Paul Bettany, recently seen in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, plays Tom Edison, son of the retired doctor, Tom Edison Sr. (Philip Baker Hall). As the voice-over tells us, Tom is a writer, and although he hasn’t actually written anything yet, he thinks an awful lot about it. To deflect his own, and others’, attention from the fact of his unachieved authorship, Tom holds regular town meetings, where he lectures the townsfolk on what he believes ‘a lot of things the people in this country have forgotten’. He’s the self appointed moral guardian of the town, and while he takes his position very seriously, the rest of the inhabitants of Dogville react with anything ranging from amused tolerance to complete denial or rejection, depending on their natures. Straightaway, the theme of moral decay and self-righteous hypocrisy has been introduced, though John Hurt’s voice-over narration is so deliberately bland and non-judgmental that it may be we are initially lulled into accepting this state of affairs as mildly amusing and perfectly fine, just as the townsfolk do.
Although the film is nominally about the town of Dogville, it is really about us, humanity, in all our pitiful, pathetic, fear-filled self-delusions. Throughout the film we are given the feeling of the status quo, and the opinions of others, governing events, opinions and behaviour, exactly as it is in our lives. We might think we make rational decisions and act upon them dispassionately. The film shows how easily we deceive ourselves into thinking our behaviour is moral when it is simply conditioned by fear or determined by habit or base desires which we cannot confront honestly.
With dubious motivation, Paul muses, ‘The problem with this town is acceptance. They need something to accept, something tangible.’ Right on cue, into this dead-end town comes Grace (Nicole Kidman), chased by gangsters and preceded by gunshots ringing from the valley below. Suitably submissive due to her fugitive status, she humbly accepts when Paul gives her sanctuary. Grace instantly agrees to his suggestion that the town will accept her better if she works for them, despite never having worked in her life before. At first protesting that none of them have anything for her to do, the townsfolk are soon depending heavily on Grace’s help as she divides her time between all the households.
For a short while it seems Grace’s currency is gaining, her gentle way providing catalytic means for personal growth and change within the community. At all times, she humbly, smilingly complies with whatever is suggested. Even to the point that when inappropriate advances are made, her soon-silenced protests do not stop first one, then many rapists, taking advantage of her. There are various superficial reasons why the townsfolk start to exploit and abuse her, none of them standing up to logic. But in the way of communities, each malicious act, each betrayal, each cruelty is justified, at least in their own minds. The darker reasons lie in the demoralising effect on a person of higher status when a submissive person taking a lower status allows first one, then many abuses to continue. Simply, Grace allows herself, by reason of Christian values, to be victimised, saying at all times that she understands and forgives them, even when she is chained to a heavy flywheel and required to continue her slave labour. The fact remains, however, that she is the catalyst for their becoming exploitive.
There are outstanding performances by Bettany and Kidman, though her softly-spoken portrayal is annoying, and perhaps meant to be, so the dynamics of social ostracism are understood. The one time she briefly explodes – and that is on request of a child who promptly and predictably betrays her - it breathes some much needed life into her character. Her third main emotional turning point allows rapid shifts from argumentative to flinty hard, and we get the sense of what she truly is and what she has been holding back both from the people who sheltered her and perhaps, herself. Ben Gazzara as the blind Jack McKay and Stellan Skarsgård as Chuck are exceptional while the rest of this formidable cast, including Harriet Anderson, Lauren Bacall and Patricia Clarkson more than hold up their end.
The final chapter is immensely powerful and a fitting climax to the film. Grace is offered the means for violent revenge from a surprising source and at first refuses it, as she has refused her rightful powerful status before from this source. ‘Dogs only obey their own natures,’ she says, ‘why shouldn’t we forgive them?’ The tempter (a solid, underworld James Caan) calls her arrogant, then offers the coup de gras. ‘What would you deserve if you had done what they have done?’
The ending might make you feel satisfied that justice has been done. Perhaps it might make you angry. It might even make you angry that the director has made you wish for vengeance and that you are pleased with the result, thus making you as merely human as the reprehensible townsfolk of Dogville.
Hmmm, Pirate Jenny has the last smiling word.
© Avril Carruthers 20th December 2003
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