There are no cast or crew credits at the beginning of Lars von Trier’s latest film. Instead, a caption announces that Dogville will be “told in nine chapters and a prologue.” When I read that, a question popped into my head: Am I going to be so bored by this hifalutin nonsense that I will be mentally screaming, “C’mon, chapter 9!” before the halfway mark, or will I be so absorbed by an idiosyncratic work of art that I’ll greet that numeral with regret when the conclusion is nigh? From what I knew of von Trier’s work (the fascinating Breaking the Waves and the pretentious Dancer in the Dark), it could go either way.
It went both ways.
In the brief prologue, we learn that Dogville is a tiny town in the Rocky Mountains (in other words, Anywhere, USA) that is barely surviving the Depression, and that its citizens evince a mixture of aimlessness and contentment. The town’s only important business is its apple orchard, but everybody scrapes by. As our minds absorb that information, however, our eyes are learning something else, namely that Dogville makes not the slightest claim to verisimilitude. Not only was it not filmed in Colorado or any similar locale, but the town wasn’t even assembled on a studio set with naturalistic contributions by designers and carpenters. Instead, Dogville was shot on a virtually bare stage with the space for each building merely chalked out on the stage floor-and no solid structure in view. (It’s the sort of setting in which actors rehearse before the sets are completed.) Country scenes are indicated by lighting adjustments. We hear taped birdsong and the barking of an unseen dog; otherwise, nature never intrudes. It’s all rather like Our Town, but Thornton Wilder’s minimalism focuses our attention on the quirky, lovable humanity of his characters, while von Trier’s airless, horizonless, sunless, moonless, treeless setting lets us know that the characters on screen are not poetic distillations of people but mere enactors of the one and only quality that von Trier perceives in American life (or life in general?): base cupidity.
Greed is the theme of the story, not just its theme but its lifeblood, blood roused by the sudden arrival of a pretty, distraught girl who calls herself Grace (our symbolism antennae stand at attention) and who is apparently in flight from a covey of gangsters. An unfaithful moll? A witness marked for death? Tom, the town’s philosopher doesn’t care. If he can get Dogville to shelter Grace, then all the townspeople may embrace his dreamy notions of openness and acceptance.
The townspeople have kindness-in-the-head the way some of D. H. Lawrence’s characters have sex-in-the-head. They acquiesce to Tom’s plan to conceal Grace from her pursuers; as token payment for their charity, she does odd jobs, such as tending a garden and helping a blind man. Then the gangsters post a large reward for the girl’s return.
To preserve their image of themselves as decent folk, they forgo the reward but, as the Russian proverb has it, when the devil can’t enter the front door, he climbs through the kitchen window. Out of a sort of sublimated greed, Dogville turns Grace first into a peripatetic servant, racing from one menial job to the next; and then, after she attempts escape, into a slave: chained, reviled, raped. And Tom the idealist, his vanity wounded by his failure to control Grace and command the town, becomes the ultimate traitor. When he calls in the gangsters, he accidentally reveals surprising facets of Grace’s past and sets Dogville up for a completely unlooked-for reward.
That conclusion is a true surprise and contains its own bitter truth, but the movie takes a long, long time to get there. Von Trier’s strategy may have seemed cunning on paper-he lowers our guard by first presenting the townspeople as lovably gnarly and crotchety, then he reveals them as scum.
But on screen the zinger doesn’t zing. Once that reward is posted and the townspeople turn mean, we see exactly where the movie is going, and it takes two more hours to get there. It’s just another indictment of dehumanizing capitalism, but whereas a convinced mid-twentieth-century Marxist such as Bertold Brecht (whose Good Woman of Setzuan surely must have been an inspiration for this movie) can hang on to a notion of humankind’s basic goodness even as he acknowledges how rotten people can become while pursuing wealth, von Trier is unable to summon up any such faith. For instance, Dogville’s males are more disgusting than its women because they not only exploit Grace’s labor but ravish her body. This brutal lust doesn’t come across as a facet of capitalism’s dehumanization but rather as sheer misanthropic horror. Yet, if von Trier can’t truly engage our moral sensibilities, he can certainly pique our eyes.
To balance the bareness of the setting, the director keeps his camera so close to faces for such long periods of time that we often forget we’re watching a setless movie. As we hover near the frowning, supplicating, jeering, beseeching countenances, our subconscious starts to fill in the natural backgrounds that don’t exist, and we come close to believing that these dialogues are being spoken in real kitchens, gardens, orchards, and countryside. Then, just as we are immersed in the realism we’ve conjured for ourselves, bang! Von Trier jerks the camera back into a long shot, and we see, once again, nothing but actors on a bare stage. It’s cold water dashed in our faces. Sometimes, the long shots are taken from high above the stage, and we look down on the actors as if they were pieces on a Monopoly board. This too enforces von Trier’s conception of life made deterministic by greed.
Constantly, the editing makes tiny elisions within the dialogue. For instance, when Tom importunes a reclining, exhausted Grace, the director cuts from a shot of the woman nearly asleep to one of her wide awake, sitting up and trying to still Tom’s jabbering. This small visual jolt reflects the increasing turbulence of their relationship.
In the offscreen narration, von Trier displays much better English skills than he does in the dialogue. My guess is that he hates all his characters except Grace, and his need to expose them pushes his writing into silly patches of pseudo-naiveté and pseudo-eloquence (“Your hands are surely the most alabaster hands I’ve ever seen,” which sounds like Tennessee Williams at the end of his tether). The narrator is (mostly) expressing von Trier’s own thoughts, and this disembodied voice’s gloating irony and downright sarcasm inspire the writer toward eloquence. It also helps that John Hurt, one of the best actors alive, speaks the narration with the crisp insouciance of the Cheshire Cat.
As for the visible cast, this Danish filmmaker must be one of the smoothest talkers in Hollywood. Look who answered his call: the current golden girl Nicole Kidman, von Trier alumnus Stellan Skarsgärd, up-and-coming Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander), Patricia Clarkson, and veterans Ben Gazarra, James Caan (in his best performance since Misery), and...(gasp!) Lauren Bacall (her perennial crustiness is perfect here). All perform well, though Kidman has the same problem here that Jim Caviezel had in The Passion: it’s hard to bring a character to life when the other characters are using you for target practice.
So, Dogville has its cinematic fascinations but I’m not enough of a masochist to put up with 180 minutes of self-induced cynicism when that cynicism makes the story predictable after the first hour. Early in von Trier’s career, the film critic David Thomson presciently noted that this melancholy Dane “has wanton skills, a greedy eye, and a taste for lush morbidity that is easily regarded as ‘the heritage of film noir’ but that may have more to do with personal and private dysfunction....Von Trier is like a seven-year-old serial killer whose bombs and weapons have gone into his eyes.” It takes guts for a critic to take his attack that close to the ad hominem, but Dogville vindicates Thomson. To be sure, the morbidity has become less lush; it’s been distilled into essence of wormwood.