“Dogville”: The American Effect


Lars von Trier’s film Dogville, a tour de force .that opened in the U.S. in late March, almost a year after its debut in Europe, begins and ends with the howling of a chained canine named Moses. Set in a tiny town in the Rocky Mountains during the Depression, the narrative chronicles the misfortunes of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a young and beautiful fugitive who wanders into this remote locale on the run from a team of gangsters. Weak and in need, she is befriended by a young man named Tom (Paul Bettany), who takes it upon himself to help her; he persuades his neighbors to hide her in exchange for her labor, a deal that promises to benefit everyone in the community. All goes well until the police begin their search for Grace in earnest, and the people of Dogville, smelling blood, begin to demand a better deal in exchange for their risk in sheltering a fugitive. What transpires is a harsh and disturbing portrait of simple people overburdened by the dual yokes of power and poverty.
This basic plot outline allows readers to see the themes that link Dogville to the Danish director’s earlier films, among them Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark: in all three of these movies, it is a female who suffers the consequences of the small minds and twisted moralities of people in insular societies. But the plot similarities don’t prepare one for the sheer radicality of Dogville: its bare stage, its extraordinary acting (by Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson and James Caan, among others), its pared-down theatricality, its bone-chilling conclusion. Von Trier speaks of the influence of Bertolt Brecht on this work, and also of the televised plays that were commonplace when he was young in the 1970s. Several critics have mentioned the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990), whose tragicomedy The Visit (1956) chronicles an equally fateful encounter between a mysterious woman and an isolated community, and does so in a similarly abstract way. Dürrenmatt’s play was set in a small town “somewhere in Central Europe.” Von Trier’s film is set in the U.S., but both deliberately minimize their settings, thereby generalizing their statements beyond national borders and creating parables of the human condition. “Yes,” von Trier said in an interview, Dogville “is about the United States but it’s also about any small town anywhere in the world.”

In order to accomplish this transformation of a historical time and place into a metaphorical space, the director employs several abstracting devices. The three-hour drama’s scenes are divided into a prologue and nine “chapters,” like a 19th-century novel. There is a lot of voiceover narration. The action takes place on a nearly empty stage articulated only by painted lines on the floor and a few scattered objects, which represent the town in its entirety. There are very few props; drab costumes and ample dirt (especially on actors’ hair and faces) suggest grim economic circumstances. The scenes unfold either on the main street or in the individual “houses” that line it, but since all of these places are without walls, the town becomes a fishbowl where everyone and everything are constantly on display. Only a few freestanding doorways, through which the characters pass, establish a sense of vertical scale. The audience, shocked at first, soon adjusts to the environment, and begins navigating through the virtual space of gooseberry bushes and general stores, imagining the details of individual houses and memorizing the placement of “landmarks” that are defined only by white lines and words on the dark floor.
It is, in fact, the human capacity to make something out of nothing that is at the heart of this story, which rushes forward on the strength of assumptions and lies, misunderstandings and omissions. The only street in the town is called “Elm Street,” and was so named by some homesick East Coast traveler unfazed by the fact that there are no such trees in the region. At some point during the film, the narrator tells us that squirrels occasionally wander down the road in search of the nonexistent elms. Dogville is, similarly, von Trier’s search for, and interaction with, America: the image of America he has seen in photographs, in films, on television. Never having visited the U.S., he has fabricated an illusion out of bits and pieces of information, and allowed this illusion to transmute into allegory.
Moses and Grace, for instance, are the names of central characters in the drama; an important plot turn hinges on the epiphany of a Blind Man (Ben Gazzara). The self-proclaimed town spokesman, Grace’s supposed savior and love interest, is named Tom Edison, and he certainly sees himself as the Bringer of Light to his community. It is on his insistence that the townspeople agree to harbor Grace, as a “gift” that will teach them openness and acceptance. A writer who never puts pen to paper, Tom instead calls town meetings to discuss “illustrations” of spiritual issues, and invents “games” that might lead to “moral rearmament.”

One of the salient characteristics of this postmodern morality play is the continually fluid nature of its “truths.” Things are never what they appear to be: cheap and sentimental figurines take on the significance of offspring, and the dog’s bone and collar become important markers in a drama where greed and lust blur the boundaries between species. Value judgments are relative, and constantly shifting. Grace is “good” until the police put up Wanted posters for her; the townspeople are “moral” in ways that are open to continual negotiation; power corrupts until its violence is perceived as cleansing. The town itself is “simple” and “charming” until the moonlight strikes it in a certain way. Von Trier uses the metaphor of shifting light and climate throughout the film to symbolize the transience of perception, the fragility and impermanence of our ideas about reality. Nostalgia, memory and fantasy are filters through which the characters “see” their barely delineated town; the action goes through sudden changes at points where someone seems to perceive what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is.”
One such revelation stands out. It occurs during the last few seconds of the movie, after its unexpectedly violent dénouement, when we hear Moses barking furiously and stare at his sparse outline-his schematic representation-drawn on the bare floor. In the deft instant of transformation which ends the narrative, that line drawing morphs into a real howling hound-or at least a filmic representation thereof. The shock is palpable. The illusions that until then have been imagined by the viewer suddenly become flesh, embodied by this snarling animal.
The dog’s belligerent materialization is followed by an abrupt shift in tone: behind the credits, we are bombarded by a rapid sequence of still photographs, accompanied by David Bowie’s boisterous song “Young Americans,” the loud, contemporary rhythms of which are extremely jarring after three hours of subtly understated acting and the sporadic use of quiet, mostly Baroque, music. The montaged pictures, as shocking in their specificity and detail as Moses’s bared teeth, depict down-and-out Americans then and now: white trash and poor blacks, criminals and the homeless, the deprived and the depraved. Like the townspeople, these, too, we understand with a jolt, are the Dogs.

At this moment, Lars von Trier’s powerful .parable crashes to earth, and the bestiality of Dogville hits home. The aggressiveness of this extended montage (which keeps rolling, along with Bowie’s music, throughout the long list of credits) is hard to overstate. Some of the pictures are in color and are more recent documents, but many are from the archives of the U.S. government amassed during the Depression by the Farm Security Administration. Black-and-white photos by image-makers like Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein, these pictures were widely distributed by the Roosevelt administration to show the catastrophic consequences of the Depression and to justify the establishment of New Deal economic policies. These are the famous photographs that spelled out the official American story of the 1930s, the pictures that have traveled to us through time as surely as televised newscasts of America travel to Lars von Trier in Denmark through space.
In this final montage, therefore, these venerated images of our history collide with their foreign reflection. In actual fact, these photos-commissioned by the U.S. government as propaganda, to manipulate public sympathy in support of its policies-are hardly objective records of our collective past. But what they do represent is a national self-image: this was the moment in American history when people were most in need, and in supporting Roosevelt’s economic aid programs the public  made an agreement to come to their rescue. Our compassionate response to the demands made on us by these photographs is part of our national mythology, our proof of the inherent goodness of the American character. We’re proud that our forebears agreed to be the saviors of their fellow citizens-a pride that is venomously mocked by von Trier’s visual tirade.
As these portraits of the down-and-out whiz by in quick succession, rundown shacks and tattered clothes are interspersed with leering faces, guns and prison bars, in such an insidious way that poverty, criminality and dark skin become synonymous conditions. “People are the same all over,” one of the characters in the film states, “greedy as animals.” In this context, these famous historical pictures elicit not compassion but disgust. Von Trier, like his Dogville characters, seems intent on blaming people for their own misery. Evidently, for this artist, underdogs-whether so designated by ethnicity, misfortune or evil action-are not only bestial but also inevitable in a society that defines itself as egalitarian in both class and race.
There’s one picture of Richard Nixon that flashes by in this mix, but it’s the only suggestion that perhaps the people on top-politically, financially, racially, militarily-might also be implicated in the mire von Trier presents. “I’m sure that America would be a beautiful, beautiful country if there were nothing there but millionaires playing golf. It would be a wonderful, peaceful society but that’s not how it is, as far as I’m told. There are unfortunately a lot of losers there, too,” the filmmaker said in an interview that was included in the distributor’s press packet. Perhaps this statement was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but judging by the “Young Americans” montage, I doubt it. And that’s a shame. Because this heavy-handed photographic diatribe is both simple-minded and offensive, it cheapens a beautiful, complex and subtle work of art.                                                   

Dogville (2003) is distributed in the U.S. by Lions Gate Films. It opened in New York and Los Angeles Mar. 19, and in select cities Apr. 2.

Author: Shelley Rice is a New York-based critic whose books include Parisian Views (MIT, 1997) and Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman (MIT, 1999).