Not a Miracle But a Machine Gun

The case for Dogville

To deplore Lars von Trier as pretentious is to state the obvious. Few filmmakers — Godard, Roeg, Greenaway — have enjoyed the luxury of experimenting on such a scale, turning the full trappings of the mainstream cinema against themselves in films that have become less accessible as his audience grows. With Dogville, von Trier has managed to make what might be the most rigorously avant garde work ever distributed by a major studio. The real question is whether the scale of its ambitions — its formal oddity, its berserk allusiveness, its attempt to lay waste to humanist pieties once and for all — add up to enough to justify its aggressive preciosity.

Von Trier begins by casually rejecting a fundamental tenet of the cinema. Even the most minimalist storytellers are obliged to place their actors in a physical space: back lots and painted sets may be deliberately artificial, but they always have walls and doors. Dogville is set on a pitch black sound stage with minimal props and schematic chalk outlines on the floor in lieu of walls. (It’s like watching The Phantom Menace at a nascent stage, the actors adrift against bare blue walls before the backgrounds and animation are grafted on.) Whenever the camera pulls back for a wide shot, every inhabitant of the tiny hamlet is clearly visible, miming their daily tasks in their “houses.” At first this archly theatrical staging, with its deadpan narration, ironic chapter headings and characters knocking on non-existent doors while we hear the thumping on the soundtrack, seems to be Brechtian alienation run amok. Yet as the story grinds grimly forward the inescapability of the townspeople in each shot shifts from a clever metaphor for small town claustrophobia to a palpably oppressive reality.

His mise-en-scène abstracted to the point that the film plays as a meditation on faces, von Trier populates this airless world with a company of great naturalist actors. This disciple of Carl Dreyer takes the harsh aridity of The Passion of Joan of Arc even further, with the same effect of focusing the emotional force of the performances by removing any distractions. There’s none of the embarrassing nakedness or histrionics of Emily Watson’s Bess in Breaking the Waves or Björk’s Selma in Dancer in the Dark here: instead, Nicole Kidman’s Grace sublimates her turmoil into serene acceptance. When Grace shifts from victim to avenger at film’s end, the poised calm of her expression as she metes out brutal revenge is the film’s most shocking image.

The standard objection to Lars von Trier is a facile charge of misogyny: since his heroines are brutalized in the course of his films, it seems clear that their creator must hate women. What’s most galling to his detractors is the gung ho willingness of his characters to accept debasement and humiliation as their lot: these are women who sacrifice everything and receive for their pains death by hanging or, in Dogville, serial rape and enslavement. (That Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves center on women who are rather stupid doesn’t help his case.) Yet von Trier endorses neither their sacrifices nor their punishments. We are never invited to enjoy or belittle their pain. The rape scenes in Dogville are staged to emphasize Grace’s helplessness and the indifference of the townspeople to her pain: only a sadist could take pleasure in cruelty depicted with such lucid gravity. Von Trier refuses (or ironicizes) the catharsis of melodrama: there are no last minute pardons, no thundering realizations. Instead he plays out the logic of melodrama — which is to say, female victimization — to the bloody end, leaving us to sort out the wider implications. The result is a profoundly uncomfortable body of work.

In Dogville, Grace is the spirit of forgiveness and accommodation. On the run from mobsters, the townspeople agree to protect her after a probationary week. Their initial resistance is overcome by her refusal of pity (she announces her willingness to leave so often it tips over into passive aggression) and her doggedness. She won’t stay unless she’s truly accepted, and she forces them to let her make herself useful, however reluctant they are at first. She becomes the town’s mule, with a particular task each day for each family: babysitter, caretaker to the infirm, page turner for the town organist. They come to love her, as much for her selfless devotion to them as for the tasks she performs, and on July Fourth she’s toasted as the source of new vitality the town so desperately needed.

This idyll falls apart as soon as the police show up with wanted posters offering a reward for her capture. The debate rages again, and she’s now allowed to stay at the cost of indentured servitude. Her once-prized frankness is seen now as hostility, and when she’s raped, she’s blamed rather than her assailant. By the end of her stay she’s in shackles, forced to service all the men in the town and only now becoming indignant: up to that point, she’s seen herself as an imposition and taken on her slavery cheerfully.

Grace is unique among the accepting victims of von Trier’s recent work in that her passivity turns to resentment and, ultimately, to vengeance. It’s both the culmination of the “True Heart Trilogy” and a renunciation, with the bloody ending complicating the meaning of the previous films. It’s impossible not to project this “happy” bit of retribution onto the earlier work, as though Bess got not the miracle of the bells but a machine gun to take out the town fathers. Yet any momentary satisfaction offered by seeing the piggish residents of Dogville finally get what they deserve — I’ve heard reports of audiences cheering Grace on like a Danish Buford Pusser — is undermined both by the ugly specificity of the revenge she carries out and the sad acceptance of her expression as she does it. There’s nothing cathartic about the blood lust of the ending; finally, it’s just sad.

The Fourth of July celebration and the end credits — a parade of famous photographs depicting poverty, lynching, race riots and murder, all set to David Bowie’s “Young Americans” — have led to the assumption that Dogville is not a story at all but instead a cranky anti-American filibuster. Von Trier provides the ammunition for this misreading: he may not have ever set foot in the United States, but he’s certainly skimmed the reading list. The story is The Scarlet Letter set in James Agee territory with a town full of Snopes. The staging references Our Town as much as Brecht; the savagery of the satire brings to mind the Mark Twain of Letters to the Earth and Pudd’nhead Wilson. Though there’s an overlay of Greek tragedy, the ending recalls Day of the Locust and Bonnie and Clyde as much as Medea. (Only Godard in his cinema-drunk youth crammed his work so full of quotes and footnotes.) In a film this abstract — it’s less a story than a philosophic proof, with the characters illustrating positions — the reference points seem to be there to tell us how to read the film. But if this is intended as anti-American sniping, it’s awfully detached: the bare set and air of parable suggest that it’s less about America than about human frailty. The literary allusions seem more like suggestions for future reading than the cornerstones of a diatribe; if Bulgarian authors had produced a body of literature that illuminated von Trier’s attack on pious hypocrisy as well as ours, the film might be set in Eastern Europe. It’s less anti-American than misanthropic: the author sees everyone as hopelessly self-serving and self-deluding, not just Americans. (That American critics take this depiction of a small town as arrogant, hypocritical and prone to destruction to be a specific attack on the United States says as much about our self-image as it does about the film.)

From the hypnotizing voice-over that opens Zentropa to the Mansonoid commune leader of The Idiots, von Trier has sought to complicate his own position in his work, implicating himself as an instigator in his provocations. Here, charmingly, his surrogate is a philosophizing “author” who has written exactly two words as the film begins. Paul Bettany plays Tom Edison as a pompous small town ass, dripping contempt for his neighbors and using Grace’s plight as a means of probing their hypocrisy. He destroys Grace in an effort to help her: if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, he’s got a cement mixer and a road crew on the job. Von Trier makes Tom a nightmare mouthpiece for his own position, and by film’s end it’s clear that his great sin is his willingness to put his own work ahead of loyalty and friendship: that he has victimized Grace concerns him less than that she has proven a useful illustration. When Grace exacts her revenge on this fool, von Trier acknowledges his critics and does them one better — it’s autocritique as masochistic fantasy.

So again, the question arises: is Dogville good enough to justify the pretensions, the deliberate provocation, the maddening arrogance of its creator? Absolutely: like The Idiots, it’s a discomfiting masterpiece, as brilliant as it is chilling.

(Thanks to Dana Knowles and David Nordstrom for their contributions to this piece.)