‘Dogville’: It Fakes a Village
By A. O. Scott
The New York Times, March 21, 2004

DOGVILLE, the setting for Lars von Trier’s new film of the same name, is a tiny, obscure town in the Colorado Rockies. The adult population numbers about 15, and during the Great Depression, when the film takes place, these people’s lives are busy, joyless and harsh. The hard-bitten folk who inhabited the Northwestern factory town in ”Dancer in the Dark,” Mr. von Trier’s previous foray into Americana, at least had a community theater, but the most Dogville can offer is some meetings presided over by a self-styled intellectual named Tom Edison Jr. (the English actor Paul Bettany).

Dogville is, in short, a place where life seems to have been reduced to its crude minimum. A modern American happening upon ”Dogville,” which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, will quickly become aware of what has been omitted. ”I deliberately took out religion,” Mr. von Trier said in a recent telephone interview. Also, he might have added, such quintessential American passions as sports, popular culture and politics: one of the citizens does own a radio, but he snaps it off as soon as one of President Roosevelt’s fireside chats comes over the airwaves. In ”Dancer in the Dark” you could glimpse a framed photograph of President Eisenhower hanging on the wall, a curious touch in a movie supposedly set in 1964, but nonetheless a scrambled signal of some connection between the fictitious characters and the actual political entity they are supposed to inhabit. In the 1930’s in Dogville, where the brief appearance of a constable is the only sign of the existence of the state, there are no pictures of F. D. R. hanging on the wall.

Then again, there aren’t any walls. Nor are there any trees or houses or enclosed physical structures of any kind. There is nothing, in short, to mark Dogville as a place, American or otherwise: aside from one or two skeletal structures, an outcropping or two of painted styrofoam and a few pieces of furniture, Dogville is conjured out of chalk outlines and stark stage effects. The floor plans of the tiny houses are stenciled on the ground, as are invisible streets and phantom landmarks like the prized gooseberry bushes and the nonexistent dog whose nonetheless audible bark signals the arrival of a stranger.

What happens to that stranger — a woman named Grace, played with a flawless combination of vulnerability and cunning by Nicole Kidman — constitutes Mr. Von Trier’s latest American tragedy. Young Tom Edison, worried without any obvious reason that the town is in need of ”moral rearmament,” wishes for a test of its virtues, a real-life ”illustration” (one of his favorite words) of his vague notions of community and responsibility. Grace, who is fleeing from big-city gangsters, seems to offer a perfect opportunity. She is reluctant to impose on the town’s kindness but also utterly helpless. Dogville rises to the challenge of her presence by opening its arms in generosity, and then enclosing her in a pious, self-justifying embrace of indentured servitude, humiliation and, eventually, sexual slavery.

It has been frequently noted that Mr. von Trier, a Dane, has never been to the United States. It was so frequently noted in discussions of ”Dancer” that he was provoked to conceive an entire American trilogy, and to pre-empt objections by noting, in press materials, that the makers of ”Casablanca” had never been to Morocco. Nor had Kafka been to the United States while writing ”Amerika.” ”I must say I’m very fond of this idea that Kafka didn’t go to America,” Mr. von Trier said. ”For me it’s about America, even though it’s about what he had seen in Europe. Somehow America is a canvas that you can use. Of course the film is, like Kafka’s book, inspired by my own meeting with not Americans but mostly Danish people. It could be a place anywhere.”

Tom Edison, who is at once Mr. von Trier’s alter ego and, ultimately, his villain, might endorse this interpretation. Toward the end of the movie, after the true, ugly nature of the town and its people has been revealed, he conceives a novel — maybe even a trilogy — about the experiences of a town just like it. ”Why not just call it Dogville?” Grace asks. ”No, no,” he says, ”it has to be universal. A lot of writers make that mistake.” It is a mistake Mr. von Trier is far too clever to avoid.

What makes ”Dogville” so fascinating, and so troubling, is the tension between the universal and the specific. ”You mean, why not just call it Denmark?” Mr. von Trier responded, mockingly, when asked about his choice. Because, of course, it couldn’t possibly be Denmark. It’s America. The script may have been written in Danish and then translated into the strange, mock-literary English the characters speak. The characters themselves may be played by a motley, international collection of actors ranging from Lauren Bacall to Chloë Sevigny to Stellan Skarsgard. (You can hardly expect a man who once cast Catherine Deneuve as a factory worker named Kathy to care much about authenticity.) But the clothes and folkways of Dogville harken unmistakably back to the land of John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and Sherwood Anderson, whose observations have been filtered through Mr. von Trier’s equally unmistakable European sensibility. The movie presents a curious blend of the alien and the familiar: it is a fantasy of America, but not an American fantasy.

The sight of actors all occupying the same barren stage, and the knowledge that the camera will never leave this spot, induce a squirming, suffocating sense of claustrophobia, which may be part of Mr. von Trier’s point. In his pitiless view, everyone lives in a fundamental state of isolation, but no one is ever alone. The illusion of intimacy is sustained by the shaky close-ups that have become hallmarks of his intrusive, unnerving camera style, but even the most secret moments seem at the same time to occur in full public view. One of the film’s grimmest scenes, the first of several rapes, takes place in one of the houses, and the camera pulls back through the invisible walls to the streets of the town, where the other Dogvilleans are going about their desultory business. Their obliviousness to what is taking place in the children’s bedroom over at Vera and Chuck’s house seems like a malign and active refusal to acknowledge it, a symbol of the repressive, willed innocence that is among the town’s many sins. The people of Dogville are proud, hypocritical and never more dangerous than when they are convinced of the righteousness of their actions. Grace, as it happens, may not be much better.

Who are these people? What is this place? The formal audacity of ”Dogville” is hard to separate from the provocations of its story and setting. Mr. von Trier, who has never seen the United States, nonetheless seems to suggest that he can see through it — through us. It is hardly surprising that some Americans have taken this personally, and responded to this brutal allegory in a defensive tone. Last spring in Cannes, where geopolitical tensions between Europe and the United States hung in the air like a bad smell, Mr. von Trier courted accusations of anti-Americanism — which, unlike awards, were numerous. Todd McCarthy, the chief film critic for Variety, wrote that ”the identification with Dogville and the United States is total and unambiguous.” He concluded that ”through his contrived tale of one mistreated woman, who is devious herself, von Trier indicts as being unfit to inhabit the earth a country that has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people onto its shores than any other in the history of the world.”

Mr. von Trier does his part to further this reading. The film’s violent denouement is followed by a sudden, gear-grinding shift from allegory to documentary, as the screen fills with photographs of destitute and miserable Americans, starting with Dorothea Lange’s dust bowl families and running through the present. The pictures, accompanied by David Bowie’s jaunty ”Young Americans,” seem to taunt us with a reality we would prefer to ignore, and to scold us for believing, like those benighted Dogvilleans, in our own unshakable goodness.

Or something like that. The coda is so heavy-handed it’s hard to take it seriously at all. ”Of course, it’s cheating a bit to put these pictures up, you might say,” Mr. von Trier conceded. ”But I can’t deny that I am by heart a socialist, and therefore the American system as I see it would make a situation like this more probable, maybe push people more quickly to the wrong side. My primitive view is that if a system is partly built on the idea that you are the maker of your own happiness, then of course poor people are miserable in the sense that they failed completely. Whereas in other countries, you might look at that more as a failure of the society.”

To take ”Dogville” primarily as the vehicle for this view, however, is to make it a much less interesting movie than it is. You might as well say that ”Dancer in the Dark,” which has a bizarre plot involving blindness — and which ends very badly, indeed — is a treatise against privatized health care and capital punishment, aspects of modern American society most likely to appall the citizens of Western European social democracies. Expanding the possible interpretation of ”Dogville” (if not his view of human nature), Mr. Von Trier offered, ”I think the point to the film is that evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right.” It is the pervasiveness of that evil — the thoroughness of the film’s pessimism — that may seem most alien of all to doggedly optimistic American sensibilities.

”Dogville” belongs in the company of other European dreams about America — Kafka’s ”Amerika,” of course, but also Bertolt Brecht’s plays set among the gangsters of Chicago and films like Wim Wenders’s ”Paris, Texas” and Michelangelo Antonioni’s ”Zabriskie Point.” To call these various works dreams is to caution against taking them too literally, and also to suggest that they may be most interesting for what they reveal about the dreamers. In spite of being led by James Caan, who once played Sonny Corleone, the black-hatted thugs who roll into Dogville have more in common with Brecht’s gangsters, who were Nazis in disguise, than with our own tradition of sentimental, mama’s-boy mobsters from ”The Public Enemy” to ”The Sopranos.” And the citizens of Dogville, for all their exaggerated frontier folksiness, seem to have been projected from the anxious unconscious of Europe. They are rooted to the spot, immobilized by habit and prejudice, incapable of flight or self-invention, and the social pathology to which they — and Grace — fall prey looks more like fascism than like our homegrown forms of viciousness and intolerance.

”Manderlay,” the middle film in Mr. von Trier’s American trilogy, will tackle a more identifiably American problem — racism and the legacy of slavery — and it will be interesting to see what European demons haunt its spartan stage. It is also interesting to note that, now that Ms. Kidman has moved on, the part of Grace will be played by Bryce Howard, a young actress who, as Mr. von Trier perhaps coyly put it, ”turned out to be the daughter of an American director, Ron Howard.” And while it may be going too far to suggest a link between Dogville and Mayberry — or, for that matter, between Dogville and Whoville — Mr. von Trier’s austere art film may be closer to the mess and ruckus of American popular culture than he knows, and not only because of his fondness for populating his allegorical landscapes with movie stars. Part of being American is participating in an endless argument about what America means, an argument to which ”Dogville” adds an unignorable, if curiously accented, voice.

And Dogville may be closer than we think. Shortly after a recent screening of the film, I turned on the television and stumbled on another small town in Colorado, rendered in a self-consciously minimalist style, where American piety is subjected to systematic and brutal deconstruction. Sometimes travel to a strange place gives you a new perspective on home, and a new appreciation for it. After Dogville, South Park will never look quite the same.

A version of this article appears in print on March 21, 2004, Section 2, Page 1 of the National edition with the headline: ‘Dogville’: It Fakes a Village.


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