What it is • A very different nightmare on Elm Street. Grace Margaret Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) hides out from gangsters in an all-American small town and eventually the townspeople mix support with exploitation, until she is suffering so greatly at their hands that the gangsters arrive as a force of liberation. The entire film unfolds on a massive soundstage, decorated with a few spare, suggestive props and chalk outlines, a sort of theatrical blueprint. This perverse, fascinating gesture both serves - like the work of playwright and director Bertolt Brecht - to highlight the artificiality inherent in the stories we enjoy (as in Celine and Julie before it), yet the spare set also reminds us how little is really needed for us to fall under the spell of these illusions, since by film's end we're entirely enveloped by the nasty little world of Dogville. On its premiere at Cannes, the film was virulently attacked by viewers and critics who found it misogynistic, misanthropic, and even anti-American. Perhaps it is all of those things, but it's also brutally honest - one of those films in which the director subjects the cast and the audience to psychological games and emotional challenges but doesn't let himself off the hook either.
Why I like it •
Dogville is both brilliant and exhausting. I love it, but I've only seen it once (though I'm overdue for a re-viewing); it was the film that fully revealed Lars von Trier's genius for me. "Postmodern" is a word that's been thrown around a lot in the past twenty years and I think von Trier fits the bill with his heightened self-consciousness, his layers of metatextual irony, his quality of pastiche - mixing and matching elements of film, art, and life which one wouldn't usually associate - just because he can. Yet he has something most postmodernists don't seem to have: a sense of depth, and weight. That's why I like Dogville so much; because alongside the clever presentation, the intellectual mind games, the willful perversity in which nothing is allowed to be simple or face-value, there's also a sense of raw emotion and pain, a feeling of responsibility - as I said, von Trier is brutal but he never lets you forget it's him being brutal, not just the characters onscreen or the situation. He's the director as God, to be sure, but more a Greek god than the Hebrew God, playing with humanity because he can, because he has power, but never trying to dress it up in morality or hide behind a cloud. He tortures others, but he tortures himself first of all. The film is not for everyone, and many don't see the same heart in von Trier. But you should definitely pay a visit to Dogville yourself - this is a bracing and exhilirating movie. To me, a great director expresses his or her vision, in rich cinematic language (and Dogville, for all its theatrical trappings, is cinematic at its core, utilizing close-up, editing, and composition to its advantage), as directly and emphatically as possible. Lars von Trier certainly does that.
How you can see it • Dogville is available on DVD from Netflix.
What do you think? • Is Dogville "enjoyable" or "entertaining"? Does it need to be? Does von Trier take responsibility for his cruelty/sadism, and does he need to? Where does this film stand in his larger body of work? How do its aesthetics and ethos relate to the Dogme 95 movement, a lo-fi manifesto that von Trier cosigned in the 90s? Is von Trier a postmodernist? What does that term mean?