Lars von Trier has made a habit of depicting women suffer. In Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, virtuous women endure unjust indignities at the hands of heartless townsfolk eager to project their own bigotry and insecurities upon their beatific female compatriots. Yet von Trier’s is not a misogynistic agenda. The women, too virtuous for this earth, suffer a martyr’s fate to demonstrate the nobility (and futility) of being good in a cruel world. As the director’s newest opus Dogville elucidates, the director’s fascination with bruised and beaten female protagonists stems from his belief that chaste women under duress most forcefully exemplify Christian munificence and sacrifice.
As in Dancer, Dogville tells the story of a kind-hearted woman starting a new life in a quiet, secluded middle-American town. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is on the run from gangsters and finds refuge in the mountainside town of Dogville, where Thomas Edison, Jr. (Paul Bettany), an intellectual interested in “moral rearmament,” urges the isolationist townsfolk to welcome Grace’s arrival as a blessing. Thomas fears his town has forgotten the holiness of charity, and views Grace’s appearance as an opportunity to realign his town’s moral compass. After some empathetic preaching, he strikes a deal: Grace is allowed to stay, and in return she must spend her days working for the town’s residents. But friendliness soon turns to exploitation as Grace becoming a lightening rod for the community’s prejudices. Before long, she’s being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by her former friends, leading to a fiery conclusion in which redemption comes in the form of hellfire and tommy guns.
Von Trier stages this nine-act drama (replete with title cards for each chapter) with a fusion of Dogma 95 experimentation and Brechtian formalism. The film’s sole setting is a stage organized like an architectural blueprint – the ground features chalk outlines of the wall-less buildings’ perimeters, and random props (such as a bed, a tree, a bell tower, or a radio) dot the landscape – as a means of highlighting the film’s deliberate artifice. Von Trier’s theatrical mise-en-scène, including John Hurt’s storybook narration, has an exacting beauty, and his alternation between charged hand-held close-ups and omniscient aerial crane shots (which resemble The Sims’ God-like perspective) reveal him to be the drama’s unseen puppeteer. Although the performances are first-rate (especially those by Bettany, Kidman, and Philip Baker Hall), the Danish director’s decision to randomly shift characters’ positions from shot to shot – in one frame, two characters are standing next to each other; the next shot, they’re ten feet apart – typifies how the actors function as pawns in von Trier’s elaborate dramatic board game. These self-conscious distancing techniques position the film squarely as a parable, and the growing crimes committed against Grace (who is a paragon of turn-the-other-cheek benevolence) are clearly part of a symbolic modus operandi in which the narrative aims to be a broader critique of humanity.
Where von Trier runs into trouble, however, is in choosing the target of his condemnation. Thomas Edison’s name, the sight of his physician father (Philip Baker Hall) reading Tom Sawyer, the Fourth of July celebration in which everyone sings “America the Beautiful” while a miniature stars-and-stripes flag hangs above the picnic table, and the church’s standing as the town’s social and philosophical center all situate us in bible belt U.S.A. The town’s successful attempt to turn Grace into an indentured servant is an apparent indictment of post-9/11 America’s skin-deep professions of tolerance – underneath that inviting façade of welcoming, open-armed embraces, von Trier didactically opines, lurk the country’s intolerant true colors. Yet while there’s some obvious historical evidence to back up such a portrayal, Von Trier’s one-sided and simplistic dramatic set-up is bereft of gradations. By providing us with equally despicable roughnecks (Stellan Skarsgård’s Chuck) and intellectuals (Bettany’s Edison) – not to mention the stereotypical black maid, who revels in treating Grace like a lowly servant – the film seems unwilling to concede that many Americans actually do predicate their lives on championing equality, compassion, and selflessness.
Although its anti-American sentiments are omnipresent, Dogville nonetheless manages to strike a poignant chord as a more general denunciation of humanity’s latent tendencies for malicious selfishness. The town’s gradual replacement of gallant kindness with rampant exploitation is caused not by Grace’s own actions – she is, without fault, accommodating and deferential – but from the desires her arrival stirs within the townspeople’s hearts. As their hostility manifests itself in ever-severe forms, the film becomes a vociferous denunciation of systematic persecution, and the deliberate pacing and minimalist production amplify the crushing mood of group thinking-inspired fanaticism. With no walls or structural barriers to hide characters in the background, there’s a persistent sense of unjust people conspiring against Grace behind her back. When Grace is finally outfitted with a collar and chained to an unwieldy metal wheel, the title’s metaphor becomes literal. This is not a community of God, but of canines.
While babysitting Vera (Patricia Clarkson) and Chuck’s children, Grace is told by the oldest son (who desperately wants to be spanked for his misbehavior) that the only way to be cleansed of sin is through physical pain. In this light, Dogville’s faith in redemption through mutilation is directly related to Christ’s horrific death march in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. Fortunately, Von Trier doesn’t share Gibson’s fetish for bloodshed, and Grace’s torture, although frustratingly unopposed by Grace herself, seems born not from holiness but rather from a resignation that the world eventually beats the good stuff out of every man and woman. When Grace, attempting to flee town by hiding in the back of a truck, discovers that the supposedly sympathetic driver has rape on his mind, her despondent expression (witnessed courtesy of a gorgeous camera trick in which the tarp covering Grace becomes semi-transparent) is one not of willing acceptance, but rather of helpless acquiescence to a dire fate.
[Note: I'm about to spoil the ending]
Except, however, that her fate isn’t dire. Thanks to Tom’s eleventh-hour betrayal, Grace is afforded, and accepts, an opportunity for revenge. Smiting her tormenters with Sodom and Gomorrah fury, Grace has her brutal vengeance, flip-flopping the film’s established dominator-dominated dynamic to provide a dramatically satisfying conclusion. For once, Von Trier’s female Christ doesn’t die a sacrificial death, but gets to walk off into the sunset. In light of the film’s apparent negative appraisal of American society, it’s perplexing that Von Trier has gangsters – a traditional American archetype if I ever saw one – come to the rescue. But irrespective of the film’s overall political content, Grace’s reversal of fortune turns the final act into a refreshing fantasy about the subjugated triumphing over the subjugator.