Grace (Nicole Kidman) is a beautiful young woman on the run. In her escape from the mob, she arrives in a rural small town somewhere in America. Dogville is a quiet place isolated from the rest of the world. Its residents are simple people who like to keep to themselves and see her arrival with some skepticism. Fortunately for Grace, Tom (Paul Bettany) a young philosopher is willing to help her. His generosity is not completely selfless: He is trying to prove his people a point. Tom wants to teach the town’s people that if they are able to accept a stranger they will only be better off for it. At first reluctant to engage with Grace, the people soon start benefiting from her presence. She offers her services to everyone in town and so after a two week trial period they decide that she can stay. On the fourth of July however, the police issues a fake warrant for her arrest. The people of Dogville know she is innocent, but nevertheless they begin to treat her like she owes them more. Grace is abused, she tries to escape, but fails and is abused once more until Tom has had enough and decides to call the mob. It all ends in an epic climax you’d have to see to believe.
Danish writer and director Lars von Trier is one of the best contemporary European filmmakers. His work is characterized by moral ambiguity, a misogynistic worldview and innovative aesthetic approaches. Dogville is less interested in telling a story in the traditional sense. The nine chapters (and epilogue) are more of a meditation on morality. Inspired by Nietzsche, Brecht and Kafka (among others), von Trier poses interesting ethical dilemmas, without necessarily offering definitive solutions. The most interesting point comes at the end of the film, where a mobster character accuses Grace of being arrogant. Having seen the film, Grace is actually the most sympathetic character, and seems frail, but far from arrogant. Are we right in assuming that just because she doesn’t judge others she isn’t arrogant? Isn’t she hiding behind her “non-judgmental” attitude, because she believes that nobody can live up to her high moral standards? By not sanctioning behavior that she wouldn’t forgive herself, isn’t she proving her presumption? The mobster surely seems to think so.
Personally, I fell in love with this movie when I saw it the first time for its sweetness and romanticism. There is a beautiful scene of Grace and Tom sitting on a bench declaring their love for each other while pollen is floating in the air like snow. The films best part remains the end. The film’s minimalist stage-like look is original and really puts the focus on the acting and rightfully so. This has to be one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen, and everyone’s bringing their A-game: John Hurt (as the narrator), Stellan Skarsgård, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Philip Baker Hall, James Caan, Ben Gazzara, Zeljko Ivanek, Lauren Bacall and the list goes on and on. I am also a fan of the classical music used in this film, especially Pergolesi’s Sabat Mater.
Dogville is clearly trying to make a political statement, it’s a critique to America. However the fact that Dogville (the town) is stripped from any ‘Americanisms’ or recognizability makes it a universal tale. Von Trier’s film, wherever they’re set, end up feeling like they take place in a generic place that bears more resemblance with Denmark than any other place. All in all one of my all time favorite films and certainly one of Lars’ best pictures.
Rating on Second Viewing
(on our Sony Bravia)
9 out of 10