Lars von Trier knows what we think of him. In the masterful Dogville, he uses that knowledge for an incendiary punch line.
Ever since Dogville premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s been fascinating watching detractors tie themselves into indignant knots over their perceptions—not just of the film, but of its creator. “Lars von Trier does not make it easy to like him,” wrote the Newark Star-Ledger’s Stephen Whitty; “Emperor’s New Clothes isn’t a tight enough fit for Lars von Trier,” grumbled New York Press’s Armond White with typical high dudgeon. Feminists hate von Trier for his much-abused female protagonists (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark); film geeks hate him for the “film artifice”—despising Dogma ’95 manifesto he almost immediately abandoned.
Too few pundits credit von Trier with being as savvy a craftsman of his own public image as he has been of his films—or with being self-aware enough to deconstruct that image. Dogville tackles dozens of “issues” with a brazen theatricality, yet it’s also almost impossible to level charges of pretentiousness at it with a straight face. As gleefully as von Trier blows up revered notions of Americana, the film is almost as enjoyable as an epic in-joke at the expense of his biggest bashers.
His Depression-era drama starts with a conceit that immediately sets up viewers either to roll with it or roll their eyes: The Colorado mountain hamlet of Dogville is laid out on a nearly empty soundstage, the buildings marked primarily by chalk outlines with the occasional door or prop chair. Here is the general store run by Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall); there is the home where self-styled moral philosopher/would-be writer Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) lives with his father (Philip Baker Hall), a retired physician.
It’s a peaceful, isolated town, one that’s about to be disrupted by the arrival of Grace (Nicole Kidman). She’s on the run from gangsters, and Dogville’s residents agree to take her in when she shows herself willing to make herself useful. But when it becomes clear that Grace’s presence could be a threat—and that she’s at the town’s mercy with nowhere else to go—the kindness of strangers takes a rather unpleasant turn.
Though the director may owe just as big a debt to Bertold Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan, the most obvious antecedent for Dogville’s minimalist look is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—and don’t think von Trier isn’t playing the similarity for all it’s worth. He’s out to skewer not Wilder’s play itself, however, but what it has come to represent. Von Trier scoffs at the idea that real virtue lies in simple folk; instead, he sees xenophobia and rage over powerlessness waiting to manifest themselves in abuse of those with even less power. Dogville isn’t, as some critics have suggested, just a nihilistic reiteration of the old saw that “power corrupts.” It’s an admonition that there are no salt-of-the-earth exceptions to the rule when you look behind the walls.
That spin on von Trier’s longstanding exploration of societal power dynamics is only one of the subjects he’s out to explore in a style bound to turn some viewers off. He tackles America’s slave-owning past. He challenges economic exploitation of the immigrant underclass, and sexual predation on women who are similarly dependent. And he does it by using one inspired Nicole Kidman performance as Grace to represent it all.
Of course, that’s exactly what can make a film like Dogville so irritating to many—its bald-faced reliance on allegory and symbolism in names like Dogville, Grace, Tom Edison, etc. and so forth. Yet even if the film were merely a modern-day morality play, it’s too sly in its cinematized stagecraft—personified by John Hurt’s purring narration—to feel pedantic. There’s even a winking anticipation of potential criticism in Tom’s reply to Grace, asking why he doesn’t name his story based on the town “Dogville”: “No, it has to be universal. That’s a common mistake.”
But there’s even more foresight demonstrated in Dogville’s revelatory final chapter. Without spoiling too much, suffice to say that it’s simultaneously an upending of one of the criticisms most often leveled at von Trier, and a phenomenal set-up for inappropriate audience response. Everything from the opening title card to the closing credits sequence and accompanying song seems designed to provoke scorn, largely because we think we know the man behind the curtain. Throughout the remarkable aesthetic experiment that is Dogville, Lars von Trier proves that he knows himself—and us—better than we’re willing to admit.
DOGVILLE, ****, Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, Rated R