View Full Version : DOGVILLE: not anti-American; anti-human

Chris Knipp
04-15-2004, 03:00 AM
Another fervent No! to life from von Trier

In `Dogville' Lars von Trier again shows off his strong sensibility, his peculiar intelligence, and his persistent artistic vision. As he mercilessly punishes yet another pretty woman selected for abuse, he also harries and bores the audience, this time, with an unappealing set, jumpy camerawork, and three long hours of creaky storytelling punctuated only by brief snatches of baroque music and toney British voiceovers spoken by Mr. John Hurt.

`Dogville's' minimalist stage-set of a miserable, isolated Rocky Mountain depression town with folksy narrator and vignettes of townspeople both imitates and mocks Thornton Wilder's `Our Town.' `It's a Wonderful World' quickly devolves into `It's a Horrible World' as von Trier unfolds a Hobbsian view of human life (and American society) that's nasty, brutish, and short.

Into Dogville one evening comes the chosen victim, a disheveled but beautiful fugitive named Grace (Nicole Kidman). Though she's clearly a pampered city lady who's on the run and being searched for, exactly what Grace's life was like before and why she has fled from it we never fully learn. The place and its people have already been described for us by a young ne'er-do-well writer with the ironic moniker of Thomas Edison (Paul Bettany). Tom, who functions like Wilder's Stage Manager, also tries to foist his vague moral schemes on the locals. He takes Grace under his wing and urges the townspeople to protect her. They do, but their acceptance is so conditional that we already suspect the worst.

Dogville's residents include a retired, hypocondriacal doctor (Philip Baker Hall), a black woman with a handicapped child, the keeper of an apple orchard (Stellan Skarsgård), people who make tchotchkes out of cheap glass, a blind man who pretends not to be blind (Ben Gazzara), a couple with six young kids, and an organist, but no church. The rather random array of characters lodged in their wall-less, diagrammatic Dogville `houses'don't add up to a coherent unit. Von Trier hasn't conceived of Dogville as a real functioning town: basic physical requirements such as kitchens and outhouses are not shown, nor are other basic needs tended to. Where do they get their food? It's all a bit vague. All that really seems to matter to von Trier is Grace's ordeal, and the townspeople's poor performance under moral scrutiny.

Grace is given two weeks on approval and agrees to show her usefulness by doing a little work every day for every single Dogville household - even though Tom in his voiceover narration repeatedly says that her work isn't needed. She's allowed to stay, and the townspeople even come to like and depend on her, but rumblings of an intensified search for her from outside make the townspeople nervous. At some point it begins to look very much as if Grace represents foreigners in America who're exploited as cheap labor. At other times American xenophobia, violence, and authoritarianism are referred to.

As time goes on the people are more and more abusive toward Grace. In the last few `chapters,' after a failed escape attempt assisted in a questionable manner by Tom, Grace is being sexually abused by most of the adult males; abused and tormented in other ways by the women; and forced to wear an iron collar with a bell attached by a chain to a heavy iron wheel. (We get the idea: they're being mean to her.) There's a certain pal of Tom's, Bill Hensen (Jeremy Davies), who's of subnormal intelligence and has nothing to do, till he develops `engineering skills' in time to fashion Grace's iron restraints.

Grace has not only been raped by the apple grower and pawed by the blind Jack McKay (Gazzara) but has had her collection of tchotchkes smashed by Patricia Clarkson and, worse of all, been betrayed by her ostensible romantic love, Tom Edison (Bettany), who allows all these horrors to happen. Tom clearly represents an ineffectual, morally reprehensible liberal intellectual.

Through all this Grace behaves in a saintly manner, forgiving everyone and accepting all accusations against her, however false. But when the gangsters come back to town to claim Grace and it turns out she's the Big Man's (Caan's) daughter, she condemns the whole town to die - except for the dog.

This finale provides the thrill of seeing malefactors get their just deserts. But its poetic justice is itself more than a little inhuman, not to say downright evil. Wilder's `Our Town' may seem corny today, but it's humane. Von Trier's `Dogville' is Brechtian in its schematic allegory and has a strident moral fervor. But Brecht's plays are clearer, more pungent. They're hopeful and good natured. Brecht has heroes and villains; von Trier gives us only villains and patsies.

Some will think this a masterpiece, as is usually the case with anything strong, daring, and peculiar. Some will consider von Trier to have emerged as the new Brecht. But for this writer the lack of economy is damning, and in any comparison with either Wilder or Brecht, von Trier is ultimately the loser.