Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
Watching Danish director Lars von Trier evolve from a person of potential to an oft-divisive but fairly well regarded auteur has been an interesting process, especially since it seems to have happened in some ways without von Trier really trying. It seems like his deliberate choices (to start the Dogme movement, for example, or the problems he famously had on set with Bjork in last week’s Dancer in the Dark) are his lesser ones, while the more natural evolution of his themes are where a lot of the surprising revelations come from.
After finishing the Golden Hearts trilogy of the last three films, von Trier decided to go in a different direction for his next group of movies, loosely titled the Land of Opportunities trilogy, supposedly a more tightly connected set of movies that contain today’s film, 2005’s Manderlay (which we’ll get to in two weeks time) and the as yet unproduced Wasington. The three movies will supposedly all contain the same main character, and are set in early 20th century America. We’ll talk more about the finish of that trilogy, though, when we get to Manderlay. In the mean time, we have a long, dark road ahead of us.
It’s impossible to talk about Dogville without talking about its formal structure. Divided into chapters (a pretty common von Trier affectation at this point) and with a narration provided by John Hurt, what’s even more striking is the way in which it’s shot. Dogville takes place entirely on a large sound stage, with most features only being marked by painted outlines (with text labels) on an otherwise featureless black floor. There are some features, to be sure, but for the most part it’s a completely void space, taking it’s cues from minimalist theater productions. That said, everyone treats it as if these outlines and random props represent a town, even going so far as to include foley for imaginary doors or digging dirt that isn’t there.
The artifice is clear, but the reasoning is less murky. Is it just a stylistic choice? I’d like to hope (and think I can confidently say) that von Trier has at this point evolved past choosing style for the sake of style, and is trying to marry the abstract concepts of how things are shot with a thematic reasoning that explains why. In this case, we’ll get into it as we explore the themes of Dogville, but I’ll tell you my conclusion up front before we get into it: the staging of Dogville is twofold: first, it’s von Trier’s winking nod that his ‘America’ trilogy is about a country he has never seen and likely never will visit, given his crippling fear of flying; second, it turns the specific into the general. Dogville as a town has a geographic location and details, to be sure, but by abstracting it out into only the outline of a street, it makes it the Everyplace. It is any small town anywhere you want to put it, it’s characters universal to the point where setting would only obfuscate the impact of the parable.
And we are definitely dealing with a parable here, even if the amount of characterization here would lead someone to believe that it’s a more specific example. The story revolves around the town of Dogville, a poor mining town in the 1920s or 30s, a collection of a dozen or so citizens we’re introduced to all at once via narration and a series of vignettes. They seem like decent small town Depression-era folk, sometimes simple and sometimes ridiculous but sympathetic. The town leader is an old doctor by the name of Tom Edison (Philip Baker Hall), and early on the movie focuses on his son Tom Jr. (Paul Bettany), who wants to supplant his aging father as the town’s moral and spiritual leader, but is a waffling intellectual sort who spends most of his time running in mental circles and being on the cusp of starting a novel that will never go anywhere to actually lead anyone out of anything.
Into this situation one night arrives Grace (Nichole Kidman), a mysterious woman being pursued by gangsters and a hail of gunfire heard off in the distance. She hides in the mine, and only Tom Jr. sees her, telling the gangsters when they show up (complete with myserious man in a big black car) that he saw nobody. She thanks him, and he sees an opportunity to make her a lesson for the town that they can choose to do great things by taking her in, even over the town’s protests. An agreement is made: she’ll work in the town, helping everyone, and in two weeks time they’ll decided whether they want to allow her to stay or whether she’s too dangerous a secret to keep.
She quickly ingratiates herself to the town through selfless work, even going so far as to win over the most staunch opponents of allowing an interloper like her to stay. Things seem to be settling into small town bliss, complete with a budding romance between her and Tom Jr., when the real world intrudes once again: the police come by, this time with wanted posters, saying Grace robbed banks in order to force her out of hiding. The whole town knows that Grace couldn’t have committed the crimes, as the dates on the posters are dates where she was working in the town, but the townspeople decide anyway that she is an increasing risk, and in order to compensate for that she has to work double the hours for less pay. And it’s then that more and more of the men start to show a less-than-healthy interest in Grace and her endless ‘do any chore’ travels through the town.
For a good portion of the film, then, this movie begins to play in similar mode to the prior Golden Hearts movies, though with a much more cynical edge. Grace both sees herself trapped in her situation and in some ways deserving of this retribution for some prior guilt before she even came into town. This continues even as she becomes a veritable slave to the town, unable to leave for fear of the police looking for her in the surrounding countryside and penned in on all sides by people who were supposedly friends rapidly being revealed as monsters. The men, now that she’s considered more the town’s slave than a member, go from hinting at sexual interest to actual assault and even rape, which in turn earns her the scorn of all the women, who see their husbands and brothers as victims of an animal nature she no doubt made them feel, something foreign that came into town with her and revealed baser natures that they are far too moral to indulge in.
And when she finally confronts them with it, along with the help of Tom Jr., they simply refuse to believe it. They can’t accept the reality of their actions, and so they deny it ever existed, and when it’s one against everyone reality takes on a distortion that skews every action. Given that Grace is already seemingly content to keep punishing herself for something as-yet-unidentified, and Tom Jr. is mostly helping her out because he’s hopelessly in love with the idea of himself as the white knight, who is left to save her? When the town shackles her to a giant stone to keep her from escaping, it’s the last straw: Grace plans to escape with the help of Tom Jr., who then turns around and tries to turn her deliverance from this subjugation into an act of romance. When she rebukes his advances, and tells him that if he wants her he’ll have to take her by force like everyone else has done, Tom realizes that he’s no different than the rest of the town. He only considered her as something to be used, and it was only in the form that dehumanization took that changed between him and the rest of Dogville. Unable to live with himself the same way everyone else seems to, he reveals his ace in the hole: a card given to him by the mysterious man in the car early in the film. He calls the man, and gives Grace up to them.
It’s this final chapter then that proves to be the most interesting, and deviates most strongly from what has come before. The gangsters come, as expected, and Grace gets into the mysterious big black car. Inside is the obvious leader of this mob, played by none other than James Caan, who reveals that Grace is his estranged daughter. The two of them got into a vicious argument about the lifestyle, with Grace thinking him a monster for exercising his influence to exploit and oppress people, and him thinking Grace naive about how the world actually worked. Words were said. He ended up shooting at her. But now the past is past, and he wants his little girl back with him at his side, ready to take over at least part of his criminal empire. That is, if she wants it.
What follows is in many ways the process of philosophical discourse that plays out as growing past the conclusions made by the last three films von Trier did, as Grace ponders the nature of morality and her father admonishes her for being so willing to forgive these ignorant backwards country people for what they did. Even if she deserved it by some broken measurement, he argues, if she acts like they can’t be blamed for their decisions (because they aren’t educated, or because they’re culturally bullied into these recursive abuses, or whatever excuse you want to make) then she’s treating them with active disdain. Being human, he explains to her, means being held accountable for the choices you make. If she’s not willing to hold people to the same standards she holds herself, then she’s in many ways her own type of moral monster, self-righteous to the point of blind martyrdom. It’s a condemnation not only of Grace, but of von Trier’s trio of female protagonists in the previous trilogy, women who studiously fell into traps of piety, or perceived need, and allowed the world to crush them because they mistook suffering for virtue.
It’s an interesting indictment of von Trier’s own narrative obsessions, and I feel like in many ways it’s him working out his own evolving feelings about his frequent female leads on film. Normally I wouldn’t prescribe therapy-through-art as worthy of public consumption (it’s cathartic, sure, but anyone who has done it can tell you the results are rarely helpful to anyone but the artist) but here it becomes also a more general narrative example of the rightful anger that comes from the realization that one has been systemically used by people who are no better/worse than you. When Grace realizes that her father was right, that these people are human beings just like her, and that she’s not some singular superwoman suffering the injustices of peons who couldn’t hope to understand her own morality, what replaces that sense of beatific nobility is fury. And when she summarily accepts her father’s offer, and them immediately makes her order the shooting and burning of every man woman and child in Dogville, the horror of the choice seems right. Yes, it’s an evil, but it is a human decision to combat evil with evil, and there is a reality to the amorality that three prior films (or a thousand, really) of ironically ideal martyred women could never hope to aspire to. In claiming her right to vengeance (even if I or anyone else would see it as wrong), she shatters every artifice and arrives at the only logical (and empirical) conclusion to violence and oppression: more violence.
As Grace and her father ride off into the blackness, leaving only people lying in the void, I wonder just how firmly von Trier burned his narrative bridges. If his first trilogy was simply him trying to establish how the abuses and ignominies of Medea could happen in our world, then Dogville begins to explore how those inspire the wrath that closes out the play. As he works, in macrocosm, through the ancient text that seems to have wrapped up his entire imagination, the question becomes what will he conclude when he runs out of play to inspire his viewpoints? Will Grace, like Medea before her, lash out at her own family and kill her father? We will have to find out in two weeks (sorry, there’s a curious speed bump in our way first) when we watch Manderlay, but I think the question is one that still haunts von Trier to this day (and maybe is part of the reason there so far is no sign of Wasington).