The first thing one notices about Dogville (2003) is the way it looks. It’s essentially a stage play, shot in a blackbox, on a minimalist set. This presentation style is new to film, but it is borrowed from the theater, which can be said of the film’s content as well. Dogville is not the most original story – it resembles a lot of classic plays – but fortunately, it is on the level with those plays. Unlike many films that use a stylized reality, Dogville would work without the gimmick, because it tells a rich, full story. The plot centers around a fictional town in Depression-era America, where the citizens’ generosity is tested by a woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman) seeking refuge in the town. She is wanted for unknown reasons, and the townspeople grant her temporary asylum, but little by little, they reveal themselves to be more cynical than they appear.
Dogville is exhaustively-detailed and forcefully-moving. Like all of Von Trier’s films, it is a parable. It takes a powerful theme (forgiveness) and dramatizes it in a concrete, relatable way. The plot is neither highly-conceptual nor difficult to grasp, but its realism gives it its power. Forgiveness is a complicated value. No blanket rule can be used to determine when it should or should not be applied. All situations must be judged on their own terms, which justifies the film’s length. Dogville is not overwritten, because every scene provides life-like details that add shading to the question at hand. Like a lot of parables, it uses metaphorical language to illustrate a point, which can be seen in Grace’s conversation with her father (James Caan), when he equates the townspeople to dogs.
The script is imaginative in both character and setting. In most morality plays, the characters are rigidly-drawn symbols that would be out of place in any other context. They have no idiosyncrasies, because they are singularly related to the theme of the play. The people in Dogville have symbolic meaning, but they are endowed with realistic traits (humor, opinions, relationships, vocabulary) to function as characters too. Each of them is given a major dialogue scene with Grace, which helps to distinguish them from one another. Then in the town meeting scenes, we see how they function as a whole. Every member of the ensemble has a different place in the topical structure of the film, because they all have different excuses for their hypocrisy, which complicates the message.
The wagon wheel, which silences Grace during her transformation, prevents the ending from becoming apparent too early. In the third act, we are never sure what’s going on inside her head, because she is incapable of speaking out against the town. She is forced into passivity, but the circumstances (rape, imprisonment) are such that it is believable she would undergo a drastic change in values. In this way, the ending may be the greatest part of the film, a cathartic revenge on the townspeople, who have revealed themselves to be, ultimately, fascistic. Grace leaves one survivor; a dog, who is actually a chalk drawing on the floor, until he morphs into a real dog and barks at the screen. It may seem ludicrous to argue this ending is optimistic, considering the town dies, but the final image is one of forgiveness, and I believe that is significant. At the very least, Von Trier wants to leave open the possibility of hope, and in this way, the ending is optimistic, because it suggests that even people who are unspeakably cruel are capable of merciful acts.
Dogville is a work of metatheater, which can be seen in its minimalistic sets, superimposed sound effects, and the fact that it is a filmed play. The self-referentiality of the production is reflected in the script by a third-person narrator (John Hurt) who provides a witty and wry commentary on the events of the film. He injects a feeling of lightness to the film, while maintaining a respectful sobriety. Dogville also borrows ideas from the novel in its use of chapter titles and the narrator’s ability to see into the minds of the characters. By pulling from these eclectic sources, Von Trier creates a story that is not just cinematic, but also theatrical and novelistic.
Von Trier is, at times, on-the-nose, but his directness is tongue-in-cheek. We expect a character named Grace to be forgiving, but she does exactly the opposite. If she pardoned the townspeople, naming her “Grace” would be a mistake, but instead, it is misdirection. Von Trier is trolling us, and critics who scoffed that he was too ornate have actually revealed themselves to be the humorless ones. Von Trier is provocative, like a cinematic Eminem. He toes the line, but if we give in to his provocation, we only amuse him, and we miss the value of his work.
The performances are top-quality. The cast ranges from Hollywood A-listers (Nicole Kidman, Patricia Clarkson) to Von Trier regulars (Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier) to classic film actors (Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzaro) to underrated character actors (Philip Baker Hall, Bill Raymond), all of whom do great work in the film. The relationships in the town are extensive, and the characters speak knowingly of each other, as if they really live together. They all seem vaguely detached, which might be strange if done by one actor, but when done in unison, it gives the town a ghostly atmosphere. Patricia Clarkson is frightening in a muted sort of way, and James Caan gives a stand-out performance as ‘The Big Man.’ Nicole Kidman, however, is at the center, and she gives the best performance. Her character doesn’t talk much, but she is captivating, even though she is withdrawn. Kidman appears to have mastered the art of stillness, which baffles many actors. She can be present without a lot of movement. The performance is humble and curious, and ultimately, it stands out the most in the film.
Quentin Tarantino said if Dogville had been done for the stage, it would have won a Pulitzer Prize. He may be onto something. The script has all the nuance and insight of an Arthur Miller play. It makes sense that Tarantino would be fascinated by Dogville, because it plays on a central theme in his filmography; revenge. Grace’s character arc is from merciful to vengeful. In the beginning, when Tom derides the town, she calls it, “a place where people have hopes and dreams, even under the hardest conditions,” but the town’s cruelty overwhelms her. The central question of the film is, “when is revenge justified?”
I always knew that Von Trier listed Dreyer as a key influence, but I assumed this was because Dreyer is a preeminent Danish filmmaker. I never saw any thread of similarity in their work, but Dogville illuminates their commonality. Most of Dreyer’s films (Ordet, Day of Wrath, Gertrud) are based on stage plays, and now I see that Von Trier is also greatly indebted to the theater. For his 1996 film Breaking The Waves, he recruited Emily Watson, a then-unknown stage actress. Dancer in the Dark (2000) paid tribute to the musical, and now, we have Dogville, a filmed play. It successfully transposes the spirit of theater to the medium of film, and that may be its greatest victory. Dreyer would have been proud.