The Scarlet Letter, D.H. Lawrence noted, “isn’t a pleasant, pretty romance. It’s a sort of parable, an earthly story with a hellish meaning.” So too Danish director Lars von Trier’s English-language Dogville.
A beautiful fugitive, suggestively named Grace (Nicole Kidman), is harbored, then exploited and nearly crucified by the denizens of an American small town until, in a convulsive finale, she brings down upon them God’s wrath. For passion, originality, and sustained chutzpah, this austere allegory of failed Christian charity and Old Testament payback is von Trier’s strongest movie—a masterpiece, in fact.
With its saintly, debased female victim and roots in melodrama, Dogville resembles von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark but is more distanced and mature than either. Despite countless echoes—both filmic and literary—Dogville is immediately recognizable as something new. Working with a handheld camera on a nearly bare soundstage, von Trier represents his town as a nearly life-size schematic plan. Less a narrative than the scaffolding on which a story might be constructed, Dogville is divided into nine chapters (and a prologue) and infused with the fathomless sarcasm of John Hurt’s insinuating voice-over. It’s the blueprint for a movie given form by the mind’s eye. Although described as filmed theater, Dogville feels more like filmed radio.
The terrific, oddball cast includes Ben Gazzara as a blind man in proud denial, Lauren Bacall as an acerbic shopkeeper, and Philip Baker Hall as a hypochondriacal doctor. Blair Brown, Patricia Clarkson, Chloë Sevigny, and Stellan Skarsgård are also seen to excellent advantage, as is Paul Bettany, who plays the nominal hero, a smug do-gooder and writer manqué. But the movie belongs to Kidman, who delivers another remarkable performance—acting natural in an almost absurdly diagrammatic setting while playing a character who seems naturally good.
Grace arrives on the eve of the vernal equinox; the Fourth of July marks her glorious integration into Dogville’s polity. Blossoms fill the air as the townspeople hold their Independence Day picnic and together sing the patriotic hymn “America the Beautiful.” Some sort of cosmic drama is about to unfold at the dead end of the Rocky Mountain road: “God shed his grace on thee.” It’s a beautiful moment. Speaking for the town, the blind man thanks Grace for showing them who she is. All too soon, however, she will show them who they are. The appearance of a police wanted poster precipitates a moral crisis that reaches its climax with autumn. Running nearly three hours without a single boring minute, Dogville builds in suffering to the apocalyptic conclusion. The fugitive is punished—not least for her various good deeds. At this point, the movie does become painful. God shed his Grace and has now returned—in the form of gangster king James Caan.
Is Grace a political refugee? A fallen angel? A guilty moll? While Dogville was in production, von Trier suggested that his political inspiration was Denmark’s new restrictions on immigration. When the movie premiered in Cannes, however, it was taken personally by some American critics as an affront far worse than the anti-capital-punishment tract that was Dancer in the Dark. Indeed, Dogville is set in a realm one might abstract from Hollywood movies. Von Trier populates his community with stock figures and, as Arthur Penn did in Bonnie and Clyde, evokes Depression America with a few cloche hats, Model T’s, and a bit of FDR.
Dogville travesties Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and glosses its evil twin, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” in which the inhabitants of an idyllic New England town hold an annual ritual to stone one of their citizens to death. But the most interesting of von Trier’s inspirations—referenced for maximum impact at the movie’s end—is Jacob Holdt’s multimedia presentation American Pictures, an unsettling mix of The Lower Depths, On the Road, and the Book of Revelation that played continuously for years in Copenhagen. Holdt’s visceral sense of America as an unjust, racist, violent society—blighted by the primeval curse of slavery and defined by its black underclass—lurks under Dogville‘s surface to explode with magnum force as the movie ends.
Von Trier’s tale of martyrdom and hypocrisy could hardly seem un-American to anyone familiar with Hawthorne or Sister Carrie or Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth or the prophetic scolding of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding or the resentment of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter. Although he’s famously never been here, von Trier has imagined an America that, in its iconography and concerns, seems almost a contribution to American literature—in this case, to the specific genre of the jeremiad. (This angry sermonizing is amplified, of course, by Dogville‘s visual Puritanism.)
America, as we are often told, is the most Christian nation on earth; Dogville creates a space within which to wonder what exactly that means, specifically when two Hollywood deities sit in the backseat of a chauffeured automobile pedantically debating the definition of arrogance, discussing the quality of mercy, and parsing the nature of human nature. Abused by the good “Americans” of Dogville, Grace pays them back with some exceedingly rough “American” justice.
Dogville has a horrifying denouement, but the movie saves its catharsis for the end credits—a devastating juxtaposition of pop music and photographic evidence. It’s a nasty joke, but David Bowie’s “Young Americans” is so stirring—and who could laugh at these images of naked distress? The town’s hitherto unseen dog turns real at the end and so does von Trier’s America.
Von Trier’s Dogville: The Year’s Most Polarizing Film
By J. Hoberman, Michael Atkinson, Dennis Lim, and Jessica Winter