Dogville explores degradation, sexual compromise, and…Nicole Kidman?

By Eric Park

One bright, cool summer day, a casual brunch date with a good friend got ugly. She, a self-proclaimed socialist, made it commonplace during most of our meetings to deem my standing on politics conservative, based on the premise that I would not endorse a regime change in our free-market economy. She suspected I harbored other radical notions and hit me with that do-or-die expression across her face, asking where I stood on the issue that really seems to seal your fate with doom in many circles: abortion. “That offends me as a woman!” she screeched with a register of shock, threatening to leave my presence immediately. Our friendship did not live so blissfully ever after.

I have since mentally tabulated the number of similar incidents we shared—with receptions ranging from disdainful glares to hush-hush appointment of “the other” through communal reverberation. Perhaps these things should not come as a surprise. Our political currency affords the individual the right to dismiss a debate on grounds of partisan strife—liberal versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat, religious versus secular, Coors Light versus Amsterdam. Accordingly, we have seen much finger pointing and name-calling in the name of politics when there is a “debate;” it’s been the time-honored tradition since street wars and toting pistols for high noon became démodé. That may just be one more paradox in our culture, be it uniquely American or not.

The names we bear and the labels we display ultimately reduce our human complexities, variabilities and contradictions to mere outlines ascribed by careless peers. This is why, in the long run, it really wasn’t my friend’s threat of abandonment that betrayed my sense of being, but the look of utter shock in her eyes in reaction to my difference. This sums up the kind of barbaric and vulgar reactions Dogville has recently been receiving from film critics, namely those who, in my mind, would have no trouble calling themselves Americans, and righteous ones at that.

More precisely, the brouhaha surrounds not so much the film itself but its director, Lars von Trier, who hails from Denmark and is in no short supply of chutzpah. When the film made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year, von Trier made no bones in revealing that it was made partly in response to American journalists who criticized him for setting his previous feature, Dancer in the Dark, in the U.S., though he had never actually set foot here.

“Actually, I feel like an American. Ich bin ein American,” he said. “I would love to start a ‘free America campaign,’ because we’ve just had a ‘free Iraq campaign.'” It was a nerve-splitting remark. And owing to his political baggage, Dogville has since been branded as anti-American and treated as a piece of propaganda.

The picture concerns a woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman), a tall, gorgeous blonde with “smooth alabaster skin,” who stumbles upon the eponymous mountain town after fleeing from gangsters. Tom Edison Jr.—the town’s moralizing philosopher figure—aids her first, proposing to the townsfolk that she be harbored as a test of their “moral rearmament.” (The chaplain has still not come knocking.) Though hardly anything except “the freight industry” connects them to the outside world, the townsfolk reluctantly accept Grace, but in exchange she is committed to give her time and labor to all of them. Yet each time the police enter into the scene asking about Grace, the town increases its demands in proportion to its own personal risk, until eventually Grace becomes their outlet of slave labor, rape, and recreational cruelty.

The story is narrated in nine chapters and a prologue, with shrewd articulation by the autumnally resonant voice of John Hurt. The film is unusual, shot inside a bare soundstage with nothing but a few staple props and chalk markings on the floor to indicate the non-existent houses and streets. The actors mime some of their actions—opening doors comes with the accompaniment of the attendant sound effect, and attending to the gooseberry bushes with a hoe in hand urges the wiping of a brow. All of this has spurred discussion of the story as a fable, a quasi-Christian allegory with references to Bertolt Brecht and the plays Our Town and The Visit for inspiration. Those are all fine comparisons, but most reviews of the film have either dismissed it merely as a parable of human venality or isolated any arguments of what von Trier is about. They have called him a “fascist,” a “bitch-killer,” and, in a clever comeback, a fire hydrant to which nature summons a dog. They’ve obviously missed the point.

David Denby’s review in The New Yorker is similarly off-base, with the added bonus of this brilliant line: “What Lars von Trier has achieved is avant-gardism for idiots.” Excuse my sarcasm, but this sentence can only be symptomatic of the kind of dialogues one might witness on such forums as Fox News and Randy’s back porch hustle (OK, that one’s a joke), where dissent is often mocked with ridicule and condescension. Was ever an idiot made for avant-gardism? I leave it up to you, reader, to judge Mr. Denby’s competency as a professional, but I know when I smell a poseur.

Dogville is too literal—and, paradoxically, not literal enough—to qualify solely as an angry brute’s divisive propaganda. When Grace speaks the line, “I owe her that” near the film’s end, it seems impossible to ignore our own primitive satisfaction in the way she orders the town’s purging. In the two screenings I’ve attended, it could not be more noticeable how everyone—American or not—relaxed into their collective seats. This may have been an act of provocation on the part of von Trier, but it’s only fair to ask whose condemnation he is really seeking.

What hardly seems worth debating, then, is whether the film is anti-American. After all, what other purpose could those end credits—consisting of black-and-white photos of deprived and miserable Americans, set to the frisky tune of David Bowie’s “Young Americans”—serve if not a superficial reminder of American hypocrisy in its promises of equality and justice for all? However, this seems to jar against the tale of Dogville, which von Trier has rightly insisted can take place anywhere in the world. Indeed, there is no attempt to authenticate its vision of America. There is no less an orthodox filmic experience between the transparent walls, or a will to abandon the schemata of continuity editing. Elm Street, we are told, runs across the town of Dogville even though no elm trees grow there. Go figure. That von Trier ordered the translator to retain aspects of the Danish vernacular in the screenplay further speaks to the legitimacy of an anti-American polemic—if such an accusation from critics merits legitimacy in light of these details.

But how does one account for those disparaging photos of suffering Americans? Just as everyone in the town of Dogville appears in plain view without obstruction to their deviant flaws, von Trier may be the most culpable for the contradictions he displays. Dogville nevertheless succeeds, and it does so in spite of the tantrum-ridden antics of its creator. It will survive, as any mesmerizing, three-hour movie with a dense spine of implications would. Those who have resorted to politicking with this work of art have gladly fallen into their own narcissistic trap. Let von Trier have his fun, because they’re in for a rude awakening.