Review: Dogville

We watched Lars von Trier’s Dogville this week (on DVD). I don’t quite know what to say about it. For starters, it is provocative, arresting, and puzzling. It’s also extremely well acted, especially the part of Grace portrayed by Nicole Kidman. But it’s also different from most films you’re likely to see, not only in its stagelike setting (chalk marks on the floor to represent walls, gooseberry bushes, and a barking dog), its spare use of props, and its jerky, disorienting cinematography, but also in its narrative line. We never quite know what it’s really about, even as the story of a stranger who enters an isolated, self-absorbed, impoverished small town in the mountains of Colorado unfolds towards its violent ending.

And so I won’t try to summarize. Instead, I’ll offer a few observations that will probably make sense only to someone who’s already seen it.

At first I thought the anti-realism of the film was just a curiosity, a trick the director was trying out. But by the time the film ended, it was clear that a realistic approach would have left us appalled, by engaging us too much on an emotional level; instead, we are permitted to keep an aesthetic distance from the gruesomeness of the town’s mean-spirited abuse of Grace and its violent demise — and thereby able to regard the story as something of an allegory, or (as the character Tom suggests) as an edifying illustration.

It is tempting to see parallels between Dogville (2003) and Breaking the Waves (1996). Von Trier gets fantastic performances from both his lead actresses (Nicole Kidman and Emily Watson, respectively), utilizes some of the same unusual camera techniques, and sets his stories in remote, ingrown communities barely connected to the outside world.

More puzzlingly, both von Trier films end in a sort of apocalypse: the earlier one with a miraculous healing, seemingly in answer to a prayer, the other in an orgy of violence. There is overt religious symbolism in Breaking the Waves, as church bells toll from the heavens. The religous overtones are slightly more subtle in Dogville, where Grace (the name may be a give-away), the meek, sacrificial victim, receives power from her father that she employs to cleanse the town. Is it too much to see the heroines in both films as Christlike figures, subjected to incomprehension and abuse from their human communities, the one bringing salvation to her paralyzed husband through her self-sacrifice, the other bringing judgment to the inhabitants of Dogville?

In fact, I feel a bit insecure suggesting such a theologically charged interpretation. But I’m more confident saying this: both films have a mystery about them that doesn’t ever get cleared up. Is the Emily Watson character simply psychotic (she does spend a lot of time in conversation with God, after all)? Who is Grace, and what’s her connection with the gangsters? By the end of the films we get partial answers, but in a way that explodes the perspective from which we were posing the questions in the first place. We are left with lots to think about.

Bottom line: von Trier is a brilliant writer and director. I intend to get ahold of more of his work.

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