Dogville (2003)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Jean-Marc Barr, Harriet Andersson
Lars von Trier
Director of Photography
Anthony Dod Mantle
Lars von Trier

Plot:  A woman on the run from gangsters in Depression era America, finds refuge in a small mountain town and its welcoming citizens, only to be subjected to a gradual humiliation and oppression from the villagers as time passes.


Dogville is a tale of oppression told in 9 Chapters (and a Prologue). The first half sets up the situation and the rather stereotypical characters, showing the townspeople at their best as the stranger tries to ingratiate herself to them as an indentured servant, soon becoming a happy, integral part of their lives. Trier sets this up well, prepping us for a fall. 

When the community discovers the real magnitude of her desperation, they each in their way take more and more advantage of her situation, threatening to expose her to those searching to reclaim her. Here the town bares its teeth and rears its ugly head, their true selves revealed, bringing the worst of human nature to bear.

From this point on, our mysterious heroine accepts and even forgives so many small and large indignities and humiliations (including physical and psychological torture as well as stylized multiple rapes) that one is amazed and appalled at the level of abuse that appears on screen.

The story takes its time to build its main protagonist up as a smiling, courageous martyr, a Saint, while every single other character, down to the town's young children are unmasked as despicable human beings. Trier manages to make us gradually despise each and every one of them with a murderous passion.

There is a final reckoning to be had, one that's quite open to interpretation, and though satisfying in a mainstream sense, it brings other questions to bear.

Inspired by the principles of Brechtian theatre, the sets making up the town are reduced to chalk marks on the floor, some necessary pieces of furniture encompassed in invisible walls, all presented on a large indoor soundstage. The minimalist sets and acting gives the whole proceeding a very theatrical feel, one that at first leaves a certain distance with the scene. But thanks to a surprisingly visceral script, good dialogue, and some fine acting by a top-notch cast, we are quickly taken into the story that allows our imagination to fill in the gaps.

Indeed, in contrast with this simple setting, the acting is as one critic put it is “naturalistic and raw”. Headlined by a terrific Kidman, the impressive cast, including the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall and Paul Bettany as her staunchest supporter and perhaps the worst monster of all, really work to make this believable.

Writer / director Trier shot the whole thing himself (he's the camera operator, if not the cinematographer), moving around town and capturing its citizens in grainy close-ups, giving it all a gritty sensibility. Soon, what was at first an impersonal cinematic gimmick becomes intensely intimate.

Along with God-like views of the village as its denizens scurry about, and the fairy-tale-like tone of John Hurt's voiceover narration, one might mistake it for playing like a cautionary tale for adults.

Sure, with all its symbolism and metaphors it's all set up and exceedingly manipulative, all meant to shove Trier's theme of arrogance and of oppression.

Though its critics have easily dubbed it anti-American - and, indeed, it is meant to be with its metaphor for American imperialistic oppression of the rest of the world, focusing on dramatizing America's mistreatment of its immigrants and of its lower classes, and satirizing the “good Christian” values and charity that are an excuse for self-aggrandizing and moral superiority to the detriment of others - it can also be seen as a universal critique of an unjust society, of any society.

One can strongly like or dislike his style of storytelling, his philosophy or subject, but there is no denying that Trier is a master filmmaker who manages to slip under our skin and punch us in the stomach at the same time.

One might balk at his political views, but just like his earlier works such as Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, Trier doesn't flinch from showing the worst of society straight on. Dogville is definitely not pleasant cinema, or an enjoyable experience, but it will definitely leave an indelible impression on its audience.

Drama: 9/10

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