Lars von Trier’s DOGVILLE is reportedly the first in a trilogy planned by the Danish filmmaker,
although one might argue that it completes the set begun with BREAKING THE WAVES (1996)
and followed by DANCER IN THE DARK (2000). Each film has at its center a naive woman
buffeted by circumstances beyond her control. After suffering, these tragic heroines discovers
peace of mind but often through martyrdom.
Interestingly, the provocative von Trier has stated in interviews that he has more difficulty
with his male characters, but he is notoriously difficult on his leading ladies. Emily Watson made an
astonishing debut in BREAKING THE WAVES but was circumspect in discussing her collaboration
with the director. Bjork, who headlined DANCER IN THE DARK, was more vocal about her
difficulties with von Trier. Although diplomatic in her discussions, it was clear that the pair had
clashed on the set. (The party line was that Bjork was inexperienced; the upshot was that filming
that movie made her decide never to act again, despite her having delivered a strong, if
unpolished performance.) Originally Nicole Kidman had committed to star in the planned trilogy,
but she has quietly distanced herself from the projects, saying that she has too many other
commitments to fulfill. Despite (or perhaps because of) the turmoil, von Trier always manages to
elicit terrific performances from his casts and DOGVILLE is no exception.
Having championed the DOGME ’95 movement to return to basics in cinema, von Trier
attempts something even more audacious with DOGVILLE. Eschewing elaborate sets and
relying on the barest props, the movie was made on a soundstage in Denmark. There are
establishing shots that show this bare-bones approach, with streets and houses outlined in white
paint and clearly marked on the floor of the stage. The result is as if Brecht had written “Our
Town” instead of Thornton Wilder.
Set in a small town in the Rocky Mountains during the Depression, DOGVILLE is the tale of
Grace (Kidman), a beautiful fugitive who seeks refuge in the small town. Initially wary, the
townsfolk gradually come to accept her as Grace takes on work duties until unforeseen events
begin to turn the residents against her. The film, an astonishing piece of cinema, is basically a tale
of charity that fails and results in vengeance. Divided into nine “chapters” (complete with
interstitial title cards like a silent film) and a prologue (that introduces the townsfolk) and utilizing
John Hurt’s sarcastic narration, DOGVILLE is an engrossing character study cum indictment of
small-town values. Perhaps von Trier did mean it as an anti-American treatise, but this story could
just as easily have been set in any country in the world. That DOGVILLE finds the universality in
the specific is part of its greatness.
The central male character, called Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), is a young man at loose
ends. The son of a doctor (Philip Baker Hall), the young Edison fancies himself something of an
artist and he also acts as the town’s conscience. It is he who discovers Grace hiding in an
abandoned mine, and it is he who convinces the town to harbor her. In return, Grace agrees to
handle menial work ranging from gardening for the acerbic shopkeeper (Lauren Bacall) to
babysitting for a farmer’s wife (Patricia Clarkson) to assisting the farmer (Stellan Skarsgaard) in his
orchid. Because of a mutual affection, Tom does not “employ” Grace.
When the police arrive with a wanted poster with Grace’s likeness on it, the town is plunged
into chaos. Gradually, those who accepted her begin to suspect her. She is forced to work harder
and longer for less. Eventually she is raped but then she is blamed for the attack and is chained
up to a contraption created by the town’s wannabe inventor (Jeremy Davies in another of his
seemingly patented eccentric performances). Faced with the ultimate betrayal, Grace
discovers untapped resources in herself that lead to a disturbing climax.
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