From the first few minutes you will see, if you haven’t already heard in advance and the name Lars von Trier isn’t sufficient warning, that Dogville is no ordinary film. The whole film takes place in Dogville, a small American town in the Depression hit 1930’s. The main street of Dogville is called Elm Street – you know that because it is painted onto the road when you view it from overhead, as it would be seen on a map. Running off Elm Street are the houses of the inhabitants of Dogville – again you know who lives where, because – well, you can see them since there are no roofs, no doors and no walls and the names of the families are written inside the chalked-out shape of the houses. The whole film is shot on one enormous theatrical stage set with only a black background to indicate night and a white background to indicate day.
A narrator (John Hurt) guides us through the town, its inhabitants and their characteristics. Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) lives in Dogville, a former mining town in the Rocky Mountains, whose houses (we imagine, since we can’t see them) are little more than shacks. Nothing happens in Dogville and the people of Dogville like it that way. Tom however has aspirations as a writer – he is a thinker and wants to educate the people, holding ‘moral lectures’ to raise their awareness of political issues and social concerns outside the little world of Dogville. It is all of little interest to anyone until the day that Grace (Nicole Kidman) stumbles into town, a fugitive from a band of gangsters. The townspeople agree to give her two weeks to get to know her and see if they will accept her into their community.
Filmed entirely on a 1600 square-metre stage, with the entire cast always present, the open stage setting may be off-putting for many viewers, but it is vitally important for the film. Rather than distract, the stripped-down Brechtian minimalist set ironically gives the impression of being more realistic, less constructed, less superficial and much more intimate, allowing the impressive cast to give exceptional performances. Never do you get the impression that there is a camera crew present, which, using handheld Digital Video for the most part, is Trier’s intention and he succeeds magnificently.
A ‘straight’ film would find it much harder to break beneath the surface, while Dogville works successfully on so many levels. On a micro level it charts the course of human relationships – the friendly but distant response to outsiders, the initial mistrust leading to the joy of discovering another person and their qualities, the gradual taking for granted phase right through to exploitation, mistreatment and ultimately contempt for the other person. On a wider level it examines the small-community dynamic, and can even be seen in macro as charting the progress of the birth of a nation, the formation of beliefs and attitudes, an insularity and ignorance of the workings of the outside world leading to a misplaced belief in the rights of their own actions.
The starkness of approach, the plainness of the sets allows so many other interpretations to be implied or inferred. There are religious undertones – there’s a God-like figure who gives people a chance of redemption, a biblical judgement day finale and even the name Grace could be significant. The most controversial and obvious reading of the film is of course the condemnation of America’s mistreatment, abuse and exploitation of non-white immigrants and ethnic minorities. If this was all the film was about however, it would be just another worthy, politically-correct arthouse film. Lars von Trier takes us beyond that with a controversial, powerful finale and a deliberately provocative and mischievous end-credit sequence. One of the most ridiculous interpretations is that of a perceived anti-Americanism in the film’s ending. It has to be said that Trier has done little to downplay this interpretation, since it clearly plays into his hands. If reviewers want to accuse the condemnation of abuse and exploitation of the poor and needy sections of the community as anti-American, Trier is quite happy to let them. The real message of Dogville is universal - it's a brilliant and provocative examination of human weakness, selfishness and intolerance.
We still haven’t had a theatrical release of Dogville in the UK, but it is out now on DVD in Denmark and France. The Danish release allows you to select English, Danish or French at start-up and from there on provides full English language menus and features. The film is English language and almost all the features are English language. Optional subtitles in English are provided anywhere where this is not the case. There are however no hard of hearing English subtitles provided for the feature or the extra features.
The film is shot in high definition Digital Video and it looks remarkable. If it is not a direct digital transfer it might as well be, as I can’t see any faults. The digital nature of the source causes the occasional aliasing artifact, but nothing significant. Otherwise the picture is perfect – a flawless, clear, sharp representation of the original film. Colours aren’t completely natural – the film is entirely stage-lit and DV doesn’t really allow for the full warmth of colours. Blacks occasionally aren’t quite black and don’t show a lot of detail, but are solid and show no signs of compression blocking. In fact, the transfer copes extremely well considering the stark flat backgrounds of the stage setting. Perfect, or as good as.
Again, I can’t really fault the sound. The surrounds on the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack are rarely used – usually only for effect when cars appear in the film, making their intrusion into Dogville all the more significant. Mostly though, the soundtrack is centre focussed and rarely strays beyond that, remaining clear and solid. I haven’t listened to the DD 2.0 track, but I would expect this soundtrack also would be more than sufficient for requirements.
Director Lars von Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle provide a selected commentary for five scenes. It says selected, but it is a substantial part of the film. The five scenes are: Tom Meets Grace (27:05), Grace Follows Tom’s Plan (14:57), Fourth of July After All (8:35), Dogville Bares Its Teeth (8:23) and The Last Illustration (1:04:10). It’s mostly chat and banter, but they cover most topics, if not in any great depth. Thankfully, scenes and meaning are not over-explained.
A Big Brother-style diary room was used on the set for the cast to ‘confess’ whenever they felt the need. Selections from this are used for the trailer.
‘Dogville Confessions’ - a film by Sami Saif. This is a marvellous documentary that gets right to the essentials, is superbly filmed and, on a production like this, never dull. The director’s struggles with his cast – notably Lauren Bacall – trying to get them to understand his vision are fun. The film is presented in 16:9 anamorphic. Most of the dialogue is in English with the occasional Danish and Swedish. The subtitles are slightly problematic – you can choose either English language subtitles for everything or nothing at all.
Trier, Kidman and Cannes (23:29)
A Danish television report on Cannes 2003, focussing naturally on the Danish entries in competition, particularly Dogville. 4:3, Danish language, optional English and French subtitles.
Dogville Test (6:05)
This is a test of the sets, lighting and camera set-ups using different Danish actors. 2.35:1 letterbox, Danish language with optional English and French subtitles. An optional commentary from Lars von Trier and Anthony Dod Mantle is available in English with optional French subtitles.
There are a good selection of interviews, all filmed at Cannes 2003, giving a wide and varied perspective on the film from principal cast and crew. The first interview with Nicole Kidman (5:55) is general about the actress, the second Nicole Kidman (3:51) interview concentrates on working with Trier on Dogville. Stellan Skarsgård (7:21) talks about how he enjoys working with Von Trier and how easy it is for him. Anders Refn (6:07) talks about working as Assistant Director to Trier. He talks about Dogville’s style, the reasons for it and how it works. Producer Vibeke Windelor (7:02) provides very insightful responses to some good questions about the problems associated with an experimental production like this. The first Lars von Trier (4:59) interview gathers his response to the film’s Cannes premiere. A second Lars Von Trier (5:37) interview tries to get beneath what Dogville is all about. All interviews are 4:3, only Kidman’s interviews are in English, the others have English and French subtitles.
Working together for 6 weeks with the same people constantly on a closed set, and working with Lars Von Trier, who doesn’t exactly have the most actor-friendly reputation, would inevitably lead to tension on the set. A Big Brother-style diary room seemed like a good idea to allow actors to speak about whatever was on their mind. In practice though it is not as insightful or as much fun as you might think it would be, unless this has been heavily edited down. 4:3, mostly English language, subtitles are provided whenever this is not the case.
Visual Effects (8:29)
Despite the stripped-down nature of the film, there were a surprising amount of technical issues that had to be resolved. This feature illustrates very well how the effects were achieved. 2.35:1 letterbox, English Language, optional French subtitles. An optional commentary is provided in English by Peter Hjorth – with optional French subtitles.
Various proposals for the poster are shown with descriptions of the concepts, through to the official final film posters.
The Trollhättan 2002 (10:12) press conference was done during the making of the film. At this stage of the production - one week into filming - the cast don't have much of interest to say, but they have a bit of fun. The official Cannes 2003 (20:52) press conference is much better - Kidman is more talkative and Trier is also quite forthcoming, reacting well to some hard-hitting questions. A short Meeting the Danish Press - Cannes 2003 (3:21) presents another different, quick-fire question and answer session. All press conferences are presented in 4:3, in English language with optional French subtitles, except the Danish press conference which is in Danish with optional English and French subtitles.
In total the extra material on the DVD is exemplary. There is not a second of space-filler here. This is possibly the most interesting and complete set of extra material I have come across on a DVD.
Thank God for Lars von Trier. He continues to experiment, to stir things, to shake people out of their complacency and their preconceptions of what cinema should be, what it should say and how it should be presented. I’ve never given a DVD an across the board top marking, but here it doesn’t even feel sufficient. Dogville is an absolutely magnificent film and, as it is presented here in the Danish R2 release, a magnificent DVD.