Dogville (2003) movie poster

(2003) director Lars von Trier
viewed: 05/04/11

Though it’s not a was never a theatrical play, Lars von Trier’s Dogtville was shot on a minimalist set that has more the feel of a stage than of a “place”.   The set of Dogville, the entire setting of the entire film, is a flat space, with most of the buildings merely represented by drawn lines and names on the ground.  An initial overhead shot shows the entire layout.  Some buildings have a wall or two and some rooms have pieces of furniture.

The film is also segmented into chapters, which have title cards and descriptions.  And there is a narrative voice-over, by John Hurt, telling the tale of the town, its people, and the woman (Nicole Kidman) who shows up in town seeking asylum from criminal pursuers.  The whole thing foregrounds the artifice of the production, which is no doubt a part of the intent.  But the story that is told, while dark and cynical, is relatively straight-forward.  Actually, I think that if the film had been shot in a more normal format, a period film with actors in period clothes and in a real location, it might have carried a fairly traditional tone.

But this is Lars von Trier, who is anything but conventional.  The film was the first in a planned series of three (2005’s Manderlay was part two, also shot in with the same technique), but the third film has not yet been made, if it ever will.  The series was called “USA – Land of Opportunities”, and knowing von Trier’s jaded perspective on the USA, there is doubtlessly a critique not just of the human psyche, but particular to that of the American psyche.

Kidman’s character is taken in by the town, posed as a test of morality and goodness in the town.  They know that she is wanted by gangsters and that they could cash in by turning her in.  Her moral test is to prove her worth, though she’s never worked a day in her life, offering assistance to the reluctant townspeople.  The test of the morals of the townspeople is that in accepting her in, they wind up abusing her, eventually using her for sex and chaining her to a bed.  The town fails their moral test, and they pay for it in blood.

The cast is quite stellar, including Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Chloë Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgård, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Bettany, and Ben Gazzara to name a few.   And the film is quite good.  As I noted before, if it had been shot with this cast in a more traditional setting, it would probably have had more commercial appeal.  It got solid reviews, and a friend of mine recommended strongly.

The anti-American aspect comes in most pointedly at the end, when David Bowie’s “Young Americans” blasts from the soundtrack, accompanied by a series of black-and-while images of poverty in America.  This sudden juxtaposition of images of reality, played against a yearning song about Americans is jarring.  What exactly does von Trier mean by this?  His story, which has a figurative nature, played out in a highly artificial landscape, seems cohesive at least in its idea, but then these images of poverty which are drawn from reality, it’s a very clear juncture, but at what end?

I mean, I get it, that there is and has long been great poverty in the United States despite having so much wealth in the country as a whole.  I get it that in this story about the crass immorality of this small town of pretended niceness and “aw gosh” charms is critical.  But anyways, the two things didn’t match up for me.  And having not seen Manderlay, or the unfinished final film, I’d just be guessing anyways.

It’s an interesting film, Dogville, among Quentin Tarantino’s top 20 films of the past 20 years.  But it wasn’t a “wow” for me.  For my money, Antichrist (2009), while quite coarse and trying, was a more successful Lars von Trier than Dogville, but who knows?

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