With Dogville, director Lars von Trier has demonstrably left behind the principles of Dogme 95, the ideas he set forth nearly a decade ago with Thomas Vinterberg and others seeking to reform what they saw as the stultified filmmaking of the day. No hand-held cameras here, shot on a soundstage rather than on location, and accompanied by a soundtrack that includes Baroque music, Dogville confirms that von Trier has abandoned his Dogme "Vow of Chastity."
There will inevitably be major controversy over the film when it opens widely in the U.S., an event the distributors seem to be delaying further with each passing week.However opinion comes down on its content, though, few will disagree that this is innovative and powerful work, a film that imprints itself on the consciousness and hauntingly lingers.
The three-hour parable, set in a washed-up Colorado mining town during the Depression, is played on a stage, bare except for a few benches, a window frame and the like, with floor markings to indicate the streets and buildings; the imprint of Our Town is apparent. Opening aerial shots taken from high above look directly down on the set, making it look like a map until the camera makes out moving images on the map that are actually people walking about the town. Once down on earth, there are no backdrops, only clear light background during the day, darkness when it is night. It is an almost claustrophobically contained environment, a place akin to that of Sartre’s, the one with no exit, a hell on earth.
And von Trier tells a hellish story, precipitated by the arrival in town of a fugitive, Grace (Nicole Kidman). Under the leadership ofTom Edison (Paul Bettany), the townspeople agree to hide Grace, in return for which she will work for them. All goes well for a while and Tom and Grace fall in love. But when the police appear and hang a wanted poster marking Grace as a fugitive from the law, attitudes change and Grace is subjected to various expressions of disapproval, exploitation, and abuse.
From protected fugitive, Grace now becomes the victim of her protectors, each turning on her in more vicious ways, empowered by a mob mentality to unleash their individual frustrations on their now captive scapegoat. When escape is thwarted, the long arc of the plotline climaxes with Grace assuming the role of avenging angel.
An unusually literate voiceover (scripted by von Trier, narrated by John Hurt) sets a fable-like tone and propels the plot forward, with a series of encounters among various combinations of characters providing the drama, played with deliberately understated emotion, stylized–almost abstracted–like a Greek tragedy. Some of the townspeople, played by a sterling cast of actors, become well-individualized, particularly Jack McKay (gravelly-voiced Ben Gazzara), a blind man with wandering hands; Vera (chameleonic Patricia Clarkson), a vengeful wife; and Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), a shopkeeper who is fastidious about gooseberry bushes.
Dogville has a distinctly Brechtian sensibility, a bitterly acerbic and unforgivingly cynical view of the world, taking sides with the downtrodden against their oppressors. While von Trier has placed it in the U.S., with many deliberately American references, it is not difficult to expand the viewpoint to the broader world. But, in an anticlimactic footnote, von Trier displays, under the end-titles, black and white still photographs by Dorothea Lange and others, photographs of poverty-stricken Dust-Bowl folks during the Depression and later on. Had von Trier chosen to show a range of such photos with a wider geographical scope, there might be support for his professedly more universal intentions. Limiting the photos to the U.S. fuels the arguments of those who will claim that Dogville is an anti-American tract, an unfortunate conclusion to such creative filmmaking. Since this is the first segment of a proposed trilogy, perhaps the future installments will balance the scales.