The Film Review: DOGVILLE 


 

As noted professor and theologian Karl Barth says of Mozart’s music, I too say of Lars von Trier’s films, “Joy overtakes sorrow without extinguishing it.” In Dogville, von Trier’s latest allegorical work, the lesson seems to be that sorrow is ever-present because we are ever-human and thus always capable of things we’d like to think naught.

 

IInterestingly, this is von Trier’s second American-set film (you can download the live wallpaper from your favorite films), despite having never actually set foot in the U.S. (the other being Dancer in the Dark). For it, the native of Denmark has imagined a most peculiar world. Lab-like in it’s isolation and universal in its elements, the town of Dogville exists on a quiet shelf deep in the Rocky Mountains. Only one road enters the town and it does not pass through, making the town both literally (with respect to location) and figuratively (in the actions of its people) the absolute end of the line. Paul Bettany (Master and Commander) heads up the distinguished cast of townspeople, who confronted with a ripe city girl, played by Nicole Kidman (Cold Mountain) who’s on the run from faceless gangsters, must decide a course of action. Kidman’s character is a refined and docile creature, completely unfamiliar with the life of labor and struggle. Thus, her feminine charms, envied by woman-folk and desired by men in the township of Dogville, present the core of her worth to Dogville. Reactions ensue when the cloistered townspeople attend an emergency meeting to calculate the risks sheltering this wanted (in every connotation of the word) girl.

 

If it’s not apparent, therein lies the genius: Dogville is an experiment, a petri dish of sorts. What is the value of a human life in a mid-20th century American town? Or in other words, what is the nature of “American” community? The question is parsed into nine stages (chapters in the film) and a prologue. It sounds like a long one and it is. The cynical and jaded answer takes 177 minutes to make it’s apocalyptic presence felt. Yet von Trier’s parable is so precise and expressed in such a revolutionary medium – derivative of stage, film, and literature – that the time lapsed is unbothersome.

 

It’s rare to find a moving-picture that asks for I.Q., rather than checking it at the door. But Dogville is smart cinema. Though it is claimed to be the Rocky Mountains, the set is just a sparsely decorated sound-stage. Chalk outlines divide the space into houses and roads and greenery is likewise sketched and labeled. (boysenberry bushes – check). Simplistic and odd indeed, but quickly overcome. The absence of scenery begs viewers to imagine their own dark Dogville and thanks to a bright script, the invitation proves sublime. The film is narrated by John Hurt (Hellboy) in a raspy bedtime story voice that sends sentences tumbling through the mind like loose dryer-socks. Tangible visions would be decidedly bland by comparison to the complex Dogville of the mind. This is participatory cinema, where the screen is mere canvas for the imagination.

 

Similarly, like a work of literary fiction that exists differently in the mind of every reader, locating meaning in the film's hushed action is an exercise of infinite possibility. There is no score to offer emotional cues and so, each effervescent line floated by the cast is subject to an intense filter of audience bias and preconception. Any semblance of a clear message is elusive, for ultimately the story is ones own projection. Although, it is likely to be a decidedly dark one in any case.

 

Chloë Sevigny (Shattered Glass), Ben Gazzara (Nella terra di nessuno) and Stellan Skarsgård (Dancer in the Dark) deliver performances of particular note, their voices are resonant and their bodies at ease in the stark bare set. The swagger and dialect of the characters – and the appearance of the actors who bring them life – make everything about this film stereotypically American. For some, this may strike a nerve as the logical synaptic jump is made from – 1.) von Trier is from Denmark – 2.) the film depicts morally impoverished people – 3.) the film is set in America – 4.) von Trier is saying America is morally impoverished. But imagine for a moment that Steven Spielberg made this film. It would be unquestioned as an American classic.

 

As is, it’s exactly what you would expect from a writer whose entire notion of North America is culled from second hand information (von Trier is afraid to fly). Yes, there is a completeness to the world von Trier has fashioned, which makes it appalling to be an American when the dark hearts of his “American” characters are fettered out on that barren stage. However, this knee-jerk reaction should be tempered by the fact that this isn’t America as we know it today; it is America at it’s financial knees. It is America from the history books. Our history books, which von Trier no doubt consulted to re-create the era. The John Steinbeck America. The brief America where life is a swirl of compulsion and necessity under the banner of Depression with a capital “D.” Yes, the characters in Dogville are soured by hard times. But what people is not at trying moments?

 

Therefore, Dogville isn’t definitively Anti-American. It’s more a microcosm of human nature in times of strife. A film about the breadlines of Cold War Russia or a plague-riddled western Europe would likely star denizens of an equally soulless nature. Capturing this complex condition in something other than a creaky, 700-page tome is work of profound genius.

 

Without strain, Dogville, is all the vastness of living captured in a snow globe, complete with the pushes and pricks of experience that, when shaken, collude to make a dark heart. That’s something special.

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