Master misogynist Lars von Trier continues his Dogme revolution with Dogville, a tale of the darker aspects of the American dream. ‘The time to make up your mind about someone is never’ remarks Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, a statement taken to heart by von Trier and his Dogme partner Peter Jenson.
A Dogme Town
Dogme films concentrate on script and acting rather than relying on big budget sets and special effects like most films nowadays. To this end, the town of Dogville is nothing more than a chalk outline on a dark sound stage with as few buildings and props as could be managed. The sparse scenery and the chalk outlines of buildings, plants and animals are at first distractingly amusing but, once the comedy value of such a highly regarded group of actors putting so much effort into the use of invisible door knobs has passed, the setting actually serves to enhance the bleak lives of the characters.
The story takes place during the Great Depression and follows Grace (played by Nicole Kidman) as she takes flight from a group of mobsters and hides out in Dogville, a small, Godforsaken town of about twenty-five people.
Grace is met by the town’s highly irritating intellectual Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) who hides her in an abandoned mine shaft when the mobsters come looking for her although he still accepts the business card offered to him by the mob boss. Seeing Grace’s predicament, Tom agrees that Grace should be given refuge in the town but first he must convince the rest of the townspeople to accept her into their small secluded society whilst at the same time having the chance to put some of his theories on human behaviour and morality into practice.
An agreement is reached whereby Grace is given two weeks in which the townspeople will decide whether she should stay or seek sanctuary elsewhere. During this time Grace is to do chores of one hour per each household per day which Tom describes as ‘physical labours’ (a great big neon sign indicating things to come).
The people of Dogville initially appear to be friendly and quickly accept Grace, realising that they can’t live without her. Needless to say, the citizens vote for her to stay and continue living in their town and doing all their dirty work. Things seem ideal but this situation soon deteriorates as Grace is increasingly used as a scapegoat for all the wrongdoings of the town. Events take a giant turn for the worse after the police post (on what is conveniently the only wall in town) first a missing person report and eventually a wanted poster of Grace.
The townspeople’s appreciation for the fugitive decreases rapidly and leaves Grace in a situation of degradation, abuse and habitual assault which reaches a peak when she is tied to a heavy metal wheel and forced to wear a bell around her neck to prevent her escape.
Lars von Trier
Von Trier is famed for his unconventional and demanding methods of working with actors (he allegedly drove Bjork to the stage where she was eating her costume during filming of The Dancer in the Dark) but, however he did it, the performances in Dogville are excellent.
Nicole Kidman gives a fabulous performance as the enigmatic Grace. She captures wonderfully Grace’s descent from hopeful outsider to accepted and useful member of society to someone so damaged by the actions of others that she seemingly has no fight left. Paul Bettany is equally good as Tom, a pretentious man more deserving of physical violence than any other of the hypocritical characters in the film.
The entire cast excel in their complex roles as the detestable townspeople, with special mention being deserved for Miles Purinton as Jason, the ten year old boy with the fondness for punishment. John Hurt’s excellent narration guides the action of Dogville and provides some of the more subtle comic moments.
Dogville is a wonderfully made film if somewhat cynical in its outlook on human kind. Von Trier seeks to demonstrate the dark and miserable nature of the world but his somewhat sensationalised and overstated method of doing so rather begs the response that the world would perhaps be a much less dark place if he stopped making such depressing films.