One day in the small American town of Dogville, in the Rocky Mountains, a young woman called Grace (Nicole Kidman) arrives. She says she is on the run from gangsters and asks for shelter. The townsfolk, at the urging of would-be writer and intellectual Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), give her two weeks notice to see if she will fit in with their way of life.
Danish director Lars von Trier began his career with three visually overwhelming, technically stunning films: The Element of Crime, Epidemic and Europa (aka Zentropa in the USA). The work of a man with an astonishing visual sense they were without a doubt, but they were also remote and cold works. The Element of Crime is, to my mind at least, insufferably pretentious and virtually unwatchable. But then, with Breaking the Waves all this changed. Out went the visual bravura, to be replaced by a handheld aesthetic, and a concentration on emotional truth, the rawer and more distressing the better. And that truth is far more important than imperfect compositions, jump cuts, jerky camerawork and even shots out of focus. The TV serials The Kingdom and its sequel, and the Dogme 95 contribution The Idiots saw Von Trier developing his new style, and beginning to shoot on video rather than film. His two most recent features, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, were shot on digital video rather than celluloid, though were intended to be shown in Scope in cinemas.
Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and now Dogville form a loose trilogy which explore themes of human exploitation and vulnerability, and a quasi-religious sense of grace (that character name in Dogville is no accident) through suffering. The fact that the central character who suffers and is degraded in each of these films is a woman – and this degradation is depicted with an intensity that borders on the sadomasochistic – is certainly troubling and has led to accusations of misogyny. To my mind, misanthropy is a more convincing charge: Von Trier’s vision of the world is one where people exploit and humiliate those more vulnerable to them, seemingly because they can. In this film, the inhabitants of Dogville reject Grace (a word you can also read with a lower-case g) and the consequences are devastating.
Another accusation levelled at Von Trier, ever since Dogville’s premiere at Cannes, was anti-Americanism. How much this is genuine and how much a typical provocation from Von Trier is unclear. He certainly doesn’t seek to avoid such accusations: for example, calling a major character Tom Edison (after the great American inventor) and revealing him to be ultimately ineffectual and not much better than his fellow townsfolk. Even more overt are the end credits, which show stills of American poverty and crime, set to David Bowie’s “Young Americans”. Both Dancer in the Dark and this film are set in America, but Von Trier has by his own admission never set foot in the country. His defence, and it’s a valid one, is that Dogville is meant as an Everytown, and from a Western perspective, the USA in its art and popular entertainment so colonised our subconscious (as another European director, Wim Wenders, put it) that universality to us is American. For the film to be set anywhere else, or even to be filmed in another language (such as Von Trier’s native Danish), would be less than universal, would be particular and other.
Dogville was shot on a 1600-square-metre soundstage in Sweden. There are no sets, just the outlines of houses and streets painted onto the floor. Costumes are accurate, and there are some props and sound effects are used for such things as the opening of invisible doors and the crunching of non-existent gravel underfoot. This style may be part of Von Trier’s “anti-Americanism”, alluding to Thornton Wilder’s much loved classic no-scenery play Our Town. Another influence is Brecht, who deliberately employed “alienation effects” to keep his audience at a critical distance by reminding them that they were watching a production rather than real life. Other distancing effects include the film’s division into a prologue and nine chapters, and the use of a coolly ironic narrator (John Hurt). (The use of a narrator is an avowed lift from Barry Lyndon, by the way.)
All this may well be offputting at first, but this theatrical style soon takes hold, and the acting and story exerts its grip. Von Trier has gathered a remarkable cast, but in the lead Nicole Kidman has never been better. She’s not a small woman by any means, but notice how her body language helps give an impression of frailty, and how she uses the upper register of her voice to give her character an ethereal quality. Von Trier achieves some powerful scenes, such as Grace’s rape in full view of the rest of the cast as they go about their daily business behind the (invisible) walls of their houses. Anthony Dod Mantle’s lighting is exemplary (Von Trier operated the camera himself), in particular in a scene where Grace opens some curtains and sunlight floods in. Dogville is a long film, but the three hours don’t seem oppressive. Von Trier once again shows himself as one of the finest directors active in the world today, still experimenting and developing without losing touch of the emotional power at the heart of his work. This isn’t a film you will forget easily.
Dogville is an Icon release distributed on DVD through their new arrangement with MGM, and is encoded for Region 2 only. It is the full-length version of the film (some countries saw a shortened cut).
The DVD transfer is anamorphic in the correct ratio of 2.35:1. Dogville’s digital-video origins give it an intentionally rougher appearance than film would have done. Line structure is often visible and the colour scheme, though strong and bright, tends towards the brownish. The handheld camerawork makes some shots blurry. However, it should be said that this is pretty much how it would have looked in a cinema – probably worse, as it would have been blown up from DV to 35mm film.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1, but to say that Dogville does not explore the possibilities of multichannel sound would be an understatement. For the most part it’s plain mono, with just a few directional effects such as the tooting of a car horn and occasional bursts of a string quartet on the soundtrack. However, at the film’s apocalyptic ending, the soundstage suddenly opens up, with fire and gunshots using all the speakers and the subwoofer.
Optional English hard-of-hearing subtitles are provided for the feature. There are twenty chapter stops.
Compared to the Danish two-disc edition, reviewed here by Noel Megahey, this British release is sparse of extras. The three we have been provided with are all on the Danish disc. A “confession box” was provided on set, as a possibly necessarily relief from working with Von Trier for the six-week shoot. 17:01 of footage is included on the DVD. It’s full-frame and mostly in English, with non-obligatory English subtitles for anyone speaking in another language – such as Von Trier himself, who speaks in Danish.
This is interesting and amusing in fits and starts, but I doubt you’d want to watch it more than once. Some footage from these “confessions” are included in the theatrical trailer, which is in anamorphic 16:9 and Dolby Digital 5.1 and runs 2:09. Finally, “Trier, Kidman and Cannes” is a report by Danish TV from the 2003 Festival, where Dogville was in competition. This is 4:3 and runs 23:33, almost entirely in Danish with fixed English subtitles.
Dogville is a remarkable, very powerful and provocative film that, above all else, reminds us that there are at least some filmmakers in the world not inclined to play safe. Picture and sound are certainly acceptable on this British release, but as far as extras go the definitive edition to date would be the Danish two-disc.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 12:20:02