Dogville (Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands/France/Germany, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Warning: Significant spoilers starting in Paragraph #4. (But, in a case like this, do plot details really matter?)

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has gone from Dogma to Dogville. The director's latest, a three-hour political allegory, has fueled controversy world-wide. This is, of course, von Trier's intention, since his ego needs this kind of attention to remain in its bloated state. Nevertheless, although the movie's self-importance causes the project to take on water, it fails to sink it. Dogville isn't for everyone, but there's some intellectually stimulating conversation fodder for those with the patience to navigate the film's rough terrain.

I admit to being conflicted about Dogville. On balance, I think the pluses outweigh the minuses, but it's a close call. This is a deeply flawed motion picture that, in spite of its problems, manages to be engrossing at times and leaves a lasting, albeit disturbing, impression. Film critic Nathan Lerner referred to it as equally "brilliant" and "unsettling," and I think he has it right. If you attend movies exclusively for their entertainment value, there's nothing here. But if you're looking for something to inspire thought and conversation, Dogville is a solid choice.

The story is simple enough, because there isn't one of substance. This is an obvious allegory (although its meaning is anything but "obvious"), which allows the movie to resonate beyond what's taking place on the screen. There's no real involvement with the characters or their situations, because von Trier makes it clear from the beginning that he's not interested in presenting a reflection of any sort of "reality." There are moments when the actors are so good that we forget this and get a glimpse of an underlying humanity, but those are fleeting instances.

Dogville is a tiny town in the Colorado Rockies during the 1930s. The population is small, consisting of 15 adults, a few children, and a dog. Into this settlement arrives Grace (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful woman being pursued by gangsters. One of the locals, Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), is immediately infatuated with her, and decides to act as her rescuer. He hides her from the gangsters, and, after they leave, proposes that she join the community. For this to happen, all 15 adults must approve her residency. She has two weeks to convince them that she will be a good citizen. She sets out to win them over, including grumpy Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), blind Jack McKay (Ben Gazarra), unhappy Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård), and high-strung Vera (Patricia Clarkson).

The first few months after Grace has joined the Dogville community are happy times. Then the police arrive, looking for her. She has been framed by the gangsters and is wanted for several armed robberies. Now that she has become a fugitive from justice, the townspeople see an opportunity to exploit her. Her working hours increase, her pay is cut, and the conditions under which she must toil become increasingly arduous. She is raped, beaten, and otherwise abused. An attempted escape fails, and the people of Dogville make contact with the gangsters, hoping they will take her away, eliminating the problem. But, when they arrive, it is revealed that Grace is the daughter of the head mobster (James Caan). She uses the reunion with her father as an opportunity to exact retribution upon everyone who has mistreated her.

The first thing to mention is von Trier's stylistic approach. Although the movie does not follow the ascetic Dogma guidelines (it uses pre-recorded music, for one thing), it in many ways takes a more bare-bones approach. The entire movie is presented as a set-less stage play. Instead of houses with walls and doors, there are chalk lines on the ground. The name of the main thoroughfare ("Elm Street") is written in block white letters where the pavement should be. When characters are intended to be opening doors, the actors mime turning a door handle, while a helpful sound effect is heard. Ostensibly, von Trier's intention is for the audience to focus on the acting and themes without being distracted by the setting, but there are times when this minimalist approach is counterproductive. On more than one occasion, scenes come close to self-parody; I was awaiting an appearance by a member of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idol, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam. (At least the gangsters use real cars.)

Dogville is von Trier at his best and his worst. Those who would argue that Dogville is a pretentious, self-indulgent, insufferably long motion picture have a case (a 2:15 director-approved cut exists, but that's not the one being released in the United States). Likewise, those who would argue that the movie offers a brutal, uncompromising perspective of issues most movies avoid can also provide a persuasive argument. The reality is that Dogville encompasses both. Paradoxically, it's a compelling bore.

What does it all mean? The film is cleverly developed so that there are at least two apparent interpretations. The strongest clues about which country the film is indicting come during the closing credits, which show photographs from the Depression-era United States and use David Bowie's "Young American" as an anthem. Those who believe von Trier is making a general statement about humanity or industrialized countries worldwide have stepped out before the end credits started rolling.

The first interpretation uses standard socialist ideals. Grace represents the oppressed masses and the townspeople are those who exploit her. In the end, she rises up against them. While this is a valid way to look at Dogville, it seems almost too simplistic a message to be embraced by a director like von Trier. Thus, the second interpretation may be closer to the director's intentions. In this scenario, Grace represents North America. Early in history, this continent and its resources were exploited by Europe. Now, however, in the wake of industrialization, North America (and, in particular, the United States) has become the world's dominant power and has used its superior technology to impose its will upon the world, without consideration of justice. Thus, the oppressed has become the oppressor, with the tables being ruthlessly overturned. This fits the events that unfold in Dogville.

Other viewers may see Dogville differently, and therein lies its genius. It inspires thought and discussion, and there's no right answer. One can engage in a verbal sparring match about what von Trier meant, whether his skeletal approach to set design works, and whether the plodding pace is necessary or a detriment. Start the conversation on the way out of the theater, continue it at a nearby coffee shop, and finish it on the drive home. As infuriating as von Trier can be (and his previous movies, like Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark have their share of admirers and despisers), he knows how to be provocative.

The cast is amazing, with everyone giving a strong (if somewhat mannered) performance. In addition to Kidman, who is superlative as Grace, there's Paul Bettany as the ineffectual Tom, Stellan Skarsård as the first man to take advantage of Grace's position, Chloë Sevigny as the town's lone sex object (before Grace's arrival), and the legendary Lauren Bacall as a fatalistic femme. Other notables include Ben Gazarra, Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Philip Baker Hall, and Jeremy Davies. John Hurt provides the narration, using his British accent to drip acid from every word.

Do I recommend the movie? Yes, although with reservations. Like many films of this sort, it can be difficult to sit through and demands an open mind. Those who approach it like this will discover that there are rewards to be unearthed. When it's all over, you may not like it, but you also won't be able to shake it. It's the film's tenacity and daring, as much as anything else, that earns it a favorable nod from this critic.

Dogville (Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands/France/Germany, 2003)

Run Time: 2:57
U.S. Release Date: 2004-03-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1