At the heart of Dogville is a paradox that will color many interpretations of the film, but it’s that same trait that makes the film so compelling. It is at once universal and incredibly particular, which makes it misanthropic and arguably anti-American, but also a treatise on democracy, a study of xenophobia, and a multi-layered exploration of human nature. Lars Von Trier recognizes this paradox, and the most crucial line of dialogue in the heavily-narrated film is when Tom, a writer and central character, is advised to name the town in his novel “Dogville” after his own town and he responds that it won’t work because “the name needs to be universal, a lot of people make that mistake.” Here, there is no mistake to be made; Dogville thrives because it knows it is both.
That quote is near the end of the film, and up to that point it’s easy to see Dogville, in which Grace (Nicole Kidman) seeks refuge from gangsters in the titular town, only for the townspeople (all 15 of them) to slowly turn against her, is a decidedly universal parable. A point is made of the town’s small size, the main road has a generic name of “Elm Street,” and the incredibly sparse set on which all three hours of the film takes place offers no defining characteristics. Likewise, characters are homogenized, introduced with very minor flaws, but these are more to provide differentiation than character depth; they are all variations on the Everyman. Most startingly, Doors and walls exist, to us, merely as chalk lines on a soundstage, and gooseberry bushes and a mountain that leads to the town are drawn in and labeled similarly. To the characters, however, everything is there, from furniture to the town dog to the doors and walls that give characters a privacy that we can see through.
The extreme minimalism of the set makes a point of the deterioration of the morality of townspeople (who are played by everyone from Hollywood stars Chloë Sevigny, James Caan, and Lauren Bacall and von Trier regulars like Stellan Skarsgård and even Ingmar Bergman’s first muse, Harriet Andersson) as being remarkably obvious. That the townspeople still deny their wrongdoing, who unlike us, can’t see a rape happening under their noses is what makes Dogville so effective; everything is obvious and yet not obvious at all. These people are constantly in denial, and how that is even possible eludes us. Lars von Trier’s understanding of human nature is slipping through, and it is not pretty. Decisions are made democratically, which slowly turns Grace from guest to civilian to slave, suggesting that the collective conscious of people can never be trusted to regularly make sympathetic and morally right decisions. The Brechtian set just makes us think, “if only they could see it how we do.” But as decisions continue to be made democratically, how exactly are we feeling about democracy, which is both Grace’s hero and attacker.
On the more specific side of things, a point is made at the very beginning of the film that Dogville is a town in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and the line about the name’s universality only reminds of that. Likewise, the edges of the set are just greyscales spaces of nothingness suggest a self-centered and xenophobic view of the world, and that they treat Grace, the outsider, the way that they do only enforces that interpretation. One might wonder how Lars Von Trier, whose fear of flying has ensured he has never stepped foot in the United States, can so brashly criticize it. It’s an understandable criticism, but Dogville was made when the United States was in the early stages of much-maligned wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and, additionally, was harboring strong feelings about illegal immigration. It made it an understandable setting for xenophobia and for a commentary on the failures of Democracy—there was much talk about America’s “illegal wars” both domestically and abroad. Contrarily, it’s worth remembering that because the film unfolds with little detail, forcing the big picture upon us, it looks less like broadly-encompassed anti-Americanism and more like a suggestion that evil can arise in the most unlikely places despite nobly intended beginnings.
Admittedly, that view is quite detestable and as cynical an outlook on life as you will see on screen, but the film’s length works tremendously in this regard, making the transformation from cautious to comfortable to happy and back down to downright evil a compelling one. This largely comes from the set and from the narration (voiced by John Hurt) that dominates the movie. It makes the film transcend from a character drama to an illustration of ideas, and while both of these things leave very little room for the audience to do any critical thinking, it also gives the film its unique place and allows for actors to abandon realism, which results in strong performances all-around. Nicole Kidman in particular turns a difficult role into a multi-faceted look at female martyrdom and self-respect, treading the line between her identity as “Grace” and a product of the evil she is surrounded by. These questions come to the forefront in Dogville’s final scene, which complicates her character and preys on the audience, who are forced to confront themselves for their own hopes that led them through the film. That ending is both a blessing and a curse, as it complicates character and provokes response but also simplifies the film to a highest level of cynicism.
Yet another line that Dogville treads is the one between Theatre and Cinema, although I’m inclined to think that it comes down on the wrong line. There is one shot that breaks away, in the back of an apple-truck, beautifully directed from overhead, that gives Dogville the look and feel of cinema, but largely, the overbearing reliance on narration and the set never elevate to something purely cinematic. Fellow provocateur Quentin Tarantino has said that Dogville would have won a Pulitzer Prize if it were conceived for the stage, but as it stands one cannot help but wonder why it was not. It’s a blemish on a film that prides itself on breaking down barriers and reckoning with paradox that, despite a clear desire to be, it is never quite as interesting or challenging formally as it is thematically. Likewise, it never challenges its audience to think and is content to force its provocative ideology onto viewers, which is a compelling ride but leads to a lot of questions whose answers are likely detrimental to the film itself. Still, life’s a journey, not a destination.