Brendan’s Log: DOGVILLE (2003)

November 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Rigid as they come. You can practically trace the arc of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville from the prologue, in which John Hurt’s bedside narration introduces the townspeople and the eponymous, isolated hamlet that exists only in theory. A Brechtian exercise in artifice, the film imagines a town suggested only through period costumes, chalklines on a bare stage indicating the walls of houses, and an animal that’s heard but seen only in a sketch helpfully labeled “DOG”. Smirk when Paul Bettany’s Tom Edison, amateur philosopher and oblivious creep, groans about the need for an “illustration” of moral principles to bring about a reawakening for the townspeople. We’re watching the illustration, of course, which Tom acknowledges in a finale where he hypothesizes a trilogy of such parables, echoing Von Trier’s own plans for such a cycle titled USA: Land of Opportunities. The story continues in Manderlay, but this first exercise is as isolated a crucible as an Edison or Von Trier could ever need.

And then there’s the girl: Nicole Kidman’s Grace, in fur and gloves, tottering on misplaced heels into a focused social experiment, stranger in a strange land. Much of the film relies on different ways of viewing Grace: in the first scene, she hides in plain sight in the mines suggested by a series of wooden arches as Tom denies knowledge of her whereabouts to the pursuing gangsters. This first act of apparent protection eventually becomes worthless, even sinister in hindsight. Tom has done nothing to hide Grace because in Dogville this act of hiding is a sham, and everyone involved consents to the illusion. She engages in manual labor, first out of eagerness to please and later out of total subservience, acquiescence souring into subjugation and crumbling into abuse. Grace’s first mock concealment leads almost inevitably to a scene in which her rape is glimpsed in the background, between the townspeople going about their business, a crime taking place “out of sight”, behind imaginary walls.

Yet Von Trier’s parable is less an indictment of humanity or of small-town America (which he has never visited) than it is a battle between two value systems, each artificial in their own way. Tom’s sermons set the stage for a controlled study of human relations, which ultimately posits that a person only acts kindly in order to procure favors from another, and barring issues of status or social obligation will simply take what they need without deference or consideration to issues of personal dignity, autonomy, or trust. To take such an “illustration” at face value as Von Trier’s central thesis, as so many critics did upon its premiere, is reactionary and myopic. Setting up the naive, two-faced Tom as the director’s stand-in is a typically ironic, self-deprecating gesture from Von Trier, and indicates that there’s more to this cynical depiction of humanity than meets the eye. But it is still not enough to undercut the point completely. To this end, Von Trier has dedicated the entire denouement of his film.

That denouement revolves crucially around Dogville’s use of its actors: Lauren Bacall, classic movie royalty, runs a glamorous window shop with inflated prices for ceramic dolls; Ben Gazzara, so explosive in the films of John Cassavetes, plays a blind man who quietly, gradually abuses Grace by first playing on her sympathy; and finally the reveal of Grace’s gangster father as James Caan, a character from the most iconic of mob movies, gliding in for the climax like an emissary from the world of Hollywood cinema. His conversation with Grace does not touch on her ordeal, instead insisting that her arrogance has led her to sympathize too much with the victims of his gang violence: crooks, he insists, whom she condescendingly believes were not capable of more than their lot in life. People must be held to a higher standard, he says, as she gets out of the car and looks once more at the people who have victimized her.

So we come to the end: Grace’s revenge on the town is her twisted way of committing to a higher moral standard represented by gangster movies, in which the wicked must be punished – and if by other violent men, so be it. The theatrical conceit reveals itself as a vessel for the satirizing of movie violence, as the gangsters hold up their prop guns to the townspeople and the sounds of “bang-bang” are dubbed onto the soundtrack. After three hours of doors, machines, and animals Foley’d into existence, the massacre of Dogville is less a hell than it is a final, absurdist flourish of the conductor’s baton, which Von Trier snaps in two as the surviving dog materializes in the film’s final shot. It’s no less a didactic conclusion than Tom’s superficial diatribe about man’s inhumanity to man, but it manages to come up with a profound paradox at the heart of such cinematic parables. In asking, finally, whether narrative filmmaking has the ability to indict anyone at all on moral grounds, Von Trier’s camera barrels into the mouth of the yapping dog, and his picture eats itself alive. – Brendan

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