Film/TV » Film Features

Ugly Americans

Lars von Trier takes aim in Dogville.



I'll say this for Dogville director Lars von Trier: There hasn't been a director of this stature with as twisted a relationship with women (and actresses) since Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock, in film after film, got masochistic thrills out of putting his heroines in jeopardy: Think of Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, when Cary Grant makes her infiltrate a Nazi lair, or Grace Kelly being sent by Jimmy Stewart to investigate a possible murderer's apartment in Rear Window. Hitchcock seemed to get off on watching these dangerous scenarios, only to reel his women back in at the last moment. And this is one reason that Vertigo is such a remarkable film: He finally allowed his object of desire to be lost for good.

Von Trier is a little different. He's not a masochist but a sadist. He sends his heroines out on martyrdom missions, orchestrating living hells for simple, good women in Breaking the Waves (Emily Watson) and Dancer in the Dark (Bjork) and leading them to an ultimate sacrifice.

Dogville has some similarities to those films. It also tracks a female protagonist on a path to martyrdom. But rather than a simple creature, Nicole Kidman's Grace is a perceptive, resourceful woman. And rather than make a helpless beeline for the cross, she's forced into a lucid decision about whether to become a Christ figure or a vengeful God. Her goodness, needless to say, is left in doubt. Until now, von Trier might have simply been called a misogynist. But with Dogville, misanthropy seems a more accurate label.

Formally, Dogville finds von Trier abandoning the realism of his Dogme period for a highly stylized, abstract visual strategy. Dogville is filmed entirely on a soundstage, with minimal props. The titular town an American mountain community in the Depression era is merely a chalk outline of roads and buildings. This gimmick is apparently off-putting to some.Studio on the Square has signs posted stating that Dogville is "filmed like a play" (not exactly) and that there will be no refunds, but I found the style to be well-conceived and effectively executed. The abstraction of the form helps sharpen a film that is about ideas more than about its characters or surface story. (You might accurately dub it an essay.) There are imagined doors and walls (and a dog) but real sound effects (knocking, barking, etc.), and many actions have are mimicked.

Kidman's Grace wanders into Dogville while on the run from both gangsters and the law. Though there is some trepidation, the townsfolk after one of those very American town-hall meetings agree to harbor her. They are helped in this decision by the self-styled town leader Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany). After first being welcomed into the town, Grace is gradually exploited, first as an overburdened, underpaid worker, then as a sex slave, and finally as a shackled criminal. Any mistaken notion viewers may have had early on that they were witnessing an Our Town-style slice of honest Americana (this being only viewers unfamiliar with von Trier, clearly) is swiftly disabused. Dogville is an acid polemic but against what?

Attentive viewers will find themselves asking these kinds of questions at some point during Dogville's never-dull three-hour length: To what degree is von Trier critiquing America and to what degree is he critiquing human nature generally? And to what degree is his critique of the U.S. based on American reality or American myth? And what exactly is he saying?

Though there has been some suggestion that the film is a response to new immigration laws in von Trier's native Denmark, it's clear that the director's misanthropy manifests itself here as an attack on America. Dogville is a cornucopia of Americana symbols. The film's dry but deeply sarcastic voiceover narration (from British actor John Hurt) evokes The Magnificent Ambersons and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Bettany's Edison Jr. is a mocking commentary on American ingenuity and idealism (and arrogance). There's a 4th of July picnic where the townsfolk sing "American the Beautiful." Edison Jr.'s dad is always reading Tom Sawyer. An apple orchard figures prominently. Dogville is cut in half by a path called Elm Street. And we are constantly reminded that Dogville is inhabited by "good, honest folks."

But these "good, honest folks" commit some heinous acts that allow von Trier to focus his critique on any number of areas where America is certainly vulnerable: the exploitation of labor, the treatment of accused or suspected criminals, the dominance of capitalism. (In Dogville, all perceived personal inequities and imbalances are rectified through an exchange of money or labor.) One character exists solely to remind viewers that America's most idealized past coincided with monstrous racial oppression.

As a critic of the reality (not to mention the potential) of American life, von Trier's trustworthiness is highly questionable. (Though there may be considerable value right now in citizens seeing how grotesquely an outsider sees us.) The film's closing credits scroll of real photos of Americans in abject poverty, scored to David Bowie's "Young Americans," is a joke that catches in the throat. You can't figure out whether it's a bigger indictment of America or of von Trier.

But as a caustic critique of American mythology of the pleasant lies American tells itself Dogville is hard to argue with. To the degree that von Trier is after the hypocrisy that comes from this self-delusion and self-congratulation, the insistence on believing the myths of American life rather than the reality, then Dogville hits a bullseye. Want examples? Start with "Columbus discovers [invades] America" and end up at the happy myth of the moral righteousness of American military might being exposed by photos from Abu Ghraib.

Americans who believe strongly in the ideals of their country may bristle at von Trier's hard medicine, but it may be a message that's needed. Of course, it would go down easier if the director gave any sense that he has affection for actual people, much less an understanding of the other side of American life that is good. So I suggest seeing Dogville (a more impressive and assured bit of cinema than Dancer in the Dark, ideas aside, though it left me similarly conflicted) and thinking hard about what it says about American life. And then I suggest washing it down with something that does grasp the goodness in people and promise of the American ideal. My choice would be Rio Bravo.

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