Intolerable Cruelty

Dogville

The easy, conventional reading of Lars von Trier’s Dogville casts it as an anti-American screed. As Todd McCarthy passionately wrote in Variety:

“There is no escaping the fact that the entire point of Dogville is that von Trier has judged America, [and] found it wanting and therefore deserving of immediate annihilation. ...

“The identification with Dogville and the United States is total and unambiguous, even without the emphatically vulgar use of pointedly grim and grisly photographs of Depression-era have-nots and crime victims under the end credits, accompanied, as if it were needed, by David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans.’”

There are a couple of problems with this interpretation. One: It neglects that Dogville isn’t polemic at all; the film raises a troubling moral question that it does not answer, because there can be no logical response to the level of cruelty portrayed in the movie. The finale is decisive and satisfying, but in a manner that should give any conscientious viewer pause for the bloodlust it quenches.

Two: McCarthy’s interpretation exists almost completely outside of the movie itself, ignoring the carefully constructed production beyond that incongruous end-credits slide show.

In other words, McCarthy is full of shit, as are a great many people who share his perspective.

Dogville is a “total and unambiguous” allegory about America only if the movie’s symbolism cannot be given any other reasonable analysis — if it’s about the United States because it cannot be about anything else. Yet nearly every element of Dogville is designed for maximum separation from concrete reality. The film, fundamentally and obviously, aspires to universality: The events could take place anywhere a human being has a degree of power over another.

To buy into an anti-American interpretation is also to claim that the technical conceit of von Trier’s movie is largely arbitrary, and he’s a far too rigorous filmmaker for that. The Danish writer-director has set his three-hour movie in an isolated (and made-up) American mountain town during the Great Depression, but it was filmed on a barely adorned soundstage. There are houses in Dogville, but there are no houses in Dogville, only outlines on the floor representing them.

The black-box staging demands a broad reading, and beyond that there’s very little in Dogville’s script or set specific to the United States, or even to the physical world of common experience — streets, buildings, and flora. The indoor set emphasizes the hermetic nature of the community and separates the content from anything too lifelike.

Further contributing to this active detachment are metatextual title cards and the comforting folk-tale tones of the narration by John Hurt. One could view these quaint touches as ironic — a bitter Our Town, meant to comment on the American façade of noble innocence — but they work best as narrative devices to uproot the story from contemporary convention and elevate it to the level of academic experiment.

The control is the ever-the-same village and its townsfolk, apparently living in a loop day after day, year after year. The variable is a stranger named Grace (Nicole Kidman), who wanders into Dogville one day and is obviously running from something. This town is so hidebound — and such a single organism, rather than a collection of individuals — that it actually holds a meeting to decide whether Grace can stay.

Grace is initially given a short trial period in the town, during which she does menial tasks for its citizens to repay their kindness. Gradually, she becomes their servant, subjected to verbal, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Only the overly sincere Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) seems on her side, but he does not inspire confidence: His deep-thought revelations loom large only to him, and he’s generally a coward.

I shan’t fault anybody for giving up on the movie. It’s a long, often tedious slog. Until the final half-hour, Dogville’s arc and meaning feel trite and don’t seem to have the heft to justify the film’s running time and self-seriousness; von Trier’s patience with his material far exceeds what could be expected of any audience.

And although the director has a ridiculous assortment of expert performers at his disposal — Kidman, Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, Philip Baker Hall, Lauren Bacall, Stellan Skarsgård, Chloë Sevigny — the script for Hurt’s voice-over does the emoting for the actors. At times it seems as though Dogville is hell-bent on torturing not only its protagonist but also its audience.

The filmmaker’s point seems obvious enough: People are shit. And it’s easy to see Grace as yet another silent, pliant, submissive von Trier “heroine.” That the abuse von Trier subjects his women to seems based less in hatred and a proclivity to cruelty than an interest in empathy makes it no less easy to watch.

But there’s something different going on this time. Looming over the whole enterprise is what drove Grace to Dogville. She never says, and the gangsters and cops who periodically come looking for her don’t, either. What could this fair-skinned, uncallused woman have possibly done to get her in such trouble? And if Grace is truly as dangerous as the police say, why does she put up with the shit that Dogville dumps on her?

The answers — revealed in an explosive finale — are powerful, surprising, and perfectly in-tune with all that has come before, and their repercussions re-frame Grace, the film itself, and the audience’s reaction to it. What had appeared to be another in a long line of von Trier misanthropies and misogynies reveals itself to be an inquiry into moral relativism, justice, and the limits of forgiveness and empathy.

It’s a genuinely human closing from a filmmaker not known for his heart or emotional realism. Grace is faced with a choice as the movie draws to an end, and her decision will be a defining one. The suspense comes because the alternatives Grace is considering — ones laid out before her and ones she’s developed — are plausible, attractive, and flawed in their own ways. Will Grace choose to let others crush her soul, or will she crush it for them? Dogville has an admittedly dim view of humanity, but it’s drawn from truth, the understanding that a pure life is nearly impossible in this world.

The movie’s climax also shows that von Trier knew what he was doing all along. For the movie to work, it needs to give the audience a sense of the natural, gradual progression of events. Grace does not submit herself to Dogville willingly; rather, the town’s slow oppression of her is incremental and logical enough that it’s barely perceptible as an affront to her body, spirit, and freedom.

I’m not certain that the movie’s ending redeems it fully, or justifies its length. But I can say without reservation that with its unexpected, late-arriving depth and honest questions, Dogville was startling, worth the time and effort, and far more interesting than the Lars-hates-America crowd would lead you to believe.

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