Reviewed by: Jim O’Neill, M.D.
lust in the Bible
How can we know there’s a God? Answer
What if the cosmos is all that there is? Answer
What does God say? Answer
Are you good enough to get to Heaven? Answer
|Featuring:||Nicole Kidman (Grace Margaret Mulligan)
“Cold Mountain,” “The Human Stain,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Practical Magic”
Paul Bettany (Tom Edison)
“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “A Knight’s Tale“
Harriet Andersson (Gloria)
“Light Keeps Me Company”
Lauren Bacall (Ma Ginger)
“My Fellow Americans”
Jean-Marc Barr (The Man with the Big Hat)
“Le Divorce,” “The Big Blue,” “Dancer in the Dark”
James Caan (The Big Man)
Ben Gazzara (Jack McKay)
“Brian’s Song,” “Illuminata”
John Hurt (Narrator—voice), Patricia Clarkson (Vera), Stellan Skarsgård (Chuck), Udo Kier (The Man in the Coat), See all »
|Director:||Lars von Trier—“Dancer in the Dark,” “Breaking the Waves”|
|Producer:||Zentropa Entertainments, Isabella Films B.V. (as Isabella Films International), See all »|
|Distributor:||Lions Gate Films|
“A quiet little town not far from here.”
“Dogville,” a film by Danish director, Lars Von Trier(“Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark”) has an all-star, mostly American cast, and some rather impressive cinematography, lighting, costuming and special effects. In fact, it looks a little too impressive for a film that purports to be a Dogma 95 adherent. Last year, I wrote about “Italian for Beginners,” another Danish film which really does exemplify the scaled-down, special-effects averse, story and theme prominent technique of the Dogma 95 school of filmmaking. I liked that film, and I admired “Dogville” (which I saw in Rome), even though I detected some cracks in its declaration of adherence to the Dogma 95 doctrine.
Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Zjelko Ivanek and James Caan don’t work for peanuts. even when they agree to reduce their fees. Period automobiles cost a small fortune to rent and to insure. When a ten year old boy is shot in the chest, flies backwards into the air and lands slumped in a heap (more on this later) a lot of money has to be spent on stunts and effects. “Dogville” may not have sounded the death knoll for a commendable cinematic movement, but it may have wounded it.
“Dogville” is the story of a civilization which self-destructs when it loses its moral vision. The film’s title refers to a small town set in Depression-era America. The film contains no background scenery. The entire set is a soundstage whose houses, shops and streets are diagrammed in two dimensions with paint on the stage. Wandering amidst those white lines and some half-constructed stage sets are the characters and the machines they employ (automobiles, trucks, carts and a wheelchair). Beyond the mostly bare proscenium is complete darkness.
At first, the setting, or the lack of one, is disconcerting. It’s also a bit pretentious, in a European art-house sort of way. After awhile, though, I didn’t miss the trees or the sky or the houses or any of the atmospherics that have become cinematic staples, and by now cliches, of depression-era films. The focus quickly shifts from background to story, and to character. With his unorthodox and unsettling technique, Von Trier has accomplished something original. And something remarkable.
A stranger (Nicole Kidman) enters the town of Dogville under mysterious circumstances. She is wanted by the police and by a group of gangsters with whom she is connected. The townspeople must decide whether to hide her from both groups and to keep her as one of their own or to turn her into the authorities. They not only keep her, they come to depend on her, to use her, and even to possess her, to the point of putting her in chains. The stranger becomes the reason, the motivation, and ultimately the justification, for the way the townspeople think and behave.
This story is an old one. It’s been the subject of great art (“Don Giovanni,” “Tartuffe,” many Flannery O’Connor stories), spirited comedy (Orton’s “Entertaining Mr. Sloan,” Wilson’s “The Music Man”), and even some good movies (remember how the people in an isolated California town both condemned and bound to Melanie Daniels in “The Birds”?).
In “Dogville,” the presence of the stranger allows the people in the town to chip away at their own moral foundation while simultaneously trying to build a stronger one for the new arrival. Ben Gazzara plays a blind resident of the town who refuses to acknowledge that he can’t see. The rest of the residents lose sight of who they are as they break more and more rules. The more laws they violate, the more they insist that the evil that results has a source other than themselves.
Even children become victims of the destruction, although von Trier’s children are no innocents. Their sins of pride rival, even surpass, their more experienced but more fatigued elders. The youngsters’venom, like that of a baby scorpion, produces maximum dread and destruction. Nonetheless, the childrens’ death scene is harsh, almost craven, and the ensuing cynicism (a remark about a dog’s whaling bark being nothing more than a protest over a lost bone) has the effect of salt being thrown into an open wound.
The town leader, who at first behaves as though he were a mayor or a minister or simply the most concerned and considerate citizen of the group actually turns out to be a writer, and perhaps the most insidious of the townspeople. He tries to keep the community intact and to protect the stranger, but he too uses her in cynical and evil ways. He tries to recreate her in a way that a writer recreates what he sees and what he knows, but his creation also has a way of recreating him, and ultimately destroying him. He does not live by, or encourage his town to live by, God’s will “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” He exerts his own will. And of course, there is no trace of heaven on the Earth he tries to build. Only its opposite.
If there is only blackness on the other side of Dogville, then Dogville as a town and as a population of souls, makes no sense. If there is nothing to hope for, or to pray for, then all that remains is decay and death by fire. It’s no wonder that so many people who attended the show I did said how depressing it was. They were right. It made me think about why so many things in today’s world can depress.
If we really did live in a world such as Dogville, and Von Trier seems to believe that his film gives an accurate picture of smalltown American life (that European art house thinking again), a world in which we can make up our own rules as we go along-and what’s to stop us if there’s nothing on the other side except darkness-we will have no moral purpose, or that purpose will change so much as to ultimately become meaningless.
When we read the letters of St. Paul or the gospel of St. John, we see darkness and doubt, but we also see something that breaks through the darkness. There is a light on that dusty road to Damascus, and there is an empty tomb on the other side of blood-soaked Golgotha. If we can’t see those things, then we, like Ben Gazzara’s character, can’t see, and won’t see, anything else.
“Dogville” is pessimistic, violent and cruel. It’s the evil twin of Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town.” I think it betrays some basic concepts of Dogma 95; however, I recommend it [for adults only] as a cautionary tale, and a bold, exhilarating cinematic exercise. You won’t see anything else quite like it. Even in those stuffy art-houses.
Violence: Extreme | Profanity: Moderate | Sex/Nudity: Heavy
Why is the world the way it is (filled with oppression, suffering, death, and cruelty)? If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving, would he really create a world like this? Answer
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.