Friday, March 30, 2018

Dogville (2003)

Netherlands / Denmark / UK / France / Finland / Sweden / Germany / Italy / Norway, 178 minutes
Director/writer: Lars von Trier
Photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Editor: Molly Marlene Stensgaard
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, Jean-Marc Barr, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Udo Kier, Chloe Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgard, John Hurt

Dogville actually represents the first installment in a "USA—Land of Opportunities" trilogy by the infamous bad boy director and screenwriter Lars von Trier, who by reputation so hates the US he has never even visited. The second episode, Manderlay, came two years later but flopped commercially and the third has yet to be made. For what it's worth, the funding for this movie came from no fewer than nine countries, not one of them the US. So perhaps inevitably I was mindful of that hatred while revisiting this lengthy and often annoying picture. Among other things it made me a little defensive about my homeland, even in this day and age when we are sliding into the abyss. At three hours, with heavy-handed aesthetic pretensions and an all-star cast representing many different phases of cinema history—Lauren Bacall! James Caan! Harriet Andersson! Chloe Sevigny! Ben Gazzara!—Dogville is self-evidently a Very Big Movie.

At its core, the premise is more or less an illustrative enactment of some social psychology experiment where people are given the opportunity to make moral choices and fail miserably—the Milgram Experiment, maybe, or the Stanford Prison Experiment. We're talking about human issues here more than American. At the same time, the signifiers make it hard to miss the point. It takes place in a semi-abandoned mining town in Colorado (called Dogville, the implication being that it's barely fit even for dogs), with not one but two characters named Thomas Edison, and placing gangsters, gun violence, and corrupt law enforcement in prominent positions of impregnable power. There's even an elaborate 4th of July celebration. The only thing missing is apple pie and ice cream.

In terms of time, the setting appears to be Great Depression era—I'm guessing the few cars are of that vintage. The town is very small, only some 15 people, but that still makes it a large cast. These characters are not particularly good people but they believe they are good—though I bristled a little, this was also quite recognizable as American. Much of our problems at the moment, for example, trace back to a belief that we have been so good to the rest of the world and they have turned out to be ingrates. A certain plurality of people in the US now believe this country has been taken advantage of for decades by foreigners and immigrants. They somehow miss the obvious point that we have more money and military power than any other country by orders of magnitude. Still, they see the US as the victims.

Dogville is also alienating because the stage-bound tale literally has no natural visual features. The town is represented by a stage with no more structure than taped-off rooms and chalked-in labels. The most prominent visual, viewed from above, is the town's main street of "Elm St." The voiceover narration points out more than once that the town has never had elm trees but it wouldn't matter if it had because there's not even a single plant in sight. Players pantomime opening and closing doors when they enter stores and houses, which is accompanied by sound effects of doors opening and closing. At first this artifice is unbearably precious, like poor community theater, but I guess in a three-hour movie you can get used to anything. In the harrowing final hour the conceit even starts to work in its favor, as horrible things happening behind closed doors are actually taking place right out there for anyone to see, which effectively gnaws away at viewer complacency.

The belligerent Trump-supporting immigrant-hating US citizens of today are still a pretty good approximation of the people in Dogville, intended in 2003 to stand in for Bush/Cheney lovers. It holds up. Grace Margaret Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) appears out of the black one night in this community, a mysterious woman on the run from strange rude men in limousines. As a group, the 15 people in Dogville are grudgingly willing to give protection to her from her pursuers but they also want to know what's in it for them. They don't want their hospitality and generosity to be taken advantage of. Grace offers to become an unremunerated servant to all of them, helping out in any way she can, and by the second hour we see the townspeople entering the mindset of slaveholders. When there is no moral counterbalance to complete control over another it's not long before people start behaving like monsters. One of Frederick Douglass's central arguments was that slavery is as bad for the moral health of the slave owner as much as for the physical well-being of the slave.

So the people of Dogville have complete control over Grace and the inevitable happens and this movie is here to detail it. Between the sets and the painfully obvious name of Grace "Do-Over," I was able to discern the allegory von Trier might be working on with his sledge hammer: Grace comes to a graceless US town, a wretched backwater of greed now mostly abandoned. It is a second chance for them. She offers hope and spiritual peace and is subsequently exploited and abused to the full extent of Lars von Trier's imagination, which anyone who has seen his movies knows can be quite extensive (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist, etc.). It is as if he is saying Th-th-that's Amerikkka for ya! I know I'm reducing it to a type—the aesthetic object known as the Lars von Trier film—but I'll also say I liked Dogville more the second time. It has its moments.

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