Between “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark”, Lars von Trier established clear stylistic and thematic sensibilities. Both films were stripped down but with wildly artificial interruptions, and both were about women who are good, too good, so good that they suffer for it. With “Dogville”, von Trier takes all these things and takes them even further. The production is bared to the minimum, but with storytelling devices that call attention to themselves.
CHAPTER ONE, in which the storytelling is described
The whole movie takes place on what is clearly a soundstage. We’re told this is the little town of Dogville up in the Rockie mountains, but we see neither mountains or a town, just a black (night) or white (day) backdrop. Houses are delimited by chalk marks, with only a few props like a single wall, a chair, a bed. You can generally see everyone and everything, because there are so few obstructions. This gives the film a naturalistic feel, like this is intimate theater, yet at the same time there’s this heavy storybook structure working in the opposite direction. The film is divided into nine chapters and a prologue, and it’s thoroughly narrated by a warm-voiced John Hurt in an old-fashioned, handsomely worded fashion, like this is a Mark Twain book.
CHAPTER TWO, in which we meet the cast of characters
Paul Bettany is Tom Edison, would-be writer and philosopher, Philip Baker Hall is his father, a doctor with his own share of (mostly imagined) ailments, Bill Raymond and Blair Brown are Mr. and Mrs. Henson, who polish cheap glass to make it look expensive, Chloë Sevigny is their young and pretty daughter Liz, Jeremy Davies is her dimwitted brother Bill, Ben Gazzara is Jack McKay, who’s blind but too vain to admit it, Lauren Bacall is Ma Ginger, owner of the only store in town, Zeljko Ivanek is Ben, who works in the freight industry and likes to go to the whorehouse, Siobhan Fallon is Martha, who takes care of the church until a pastor is assigned to Dogville, Cleo King is Olivia, a black woman who cleans up homes down in the city for a living, Stellan Skarsgård is Chuck, who works long hard days in the orchard, and Patricia Clarkson is Vera, his wife and the mother of their seven children.
This is a wonderful ensemble of actors, and they contribute to making you believe that this is a real town, a real community. We’re increasingly charmed by the people of Dogville, they’re simple folks but we like them. You get the feel that this what QT calls a hang-out movie, where the plot is just an excuse for putting together interesting characters, a movie you look forward to seeing again to spend time with said characters, who become like old friends of yours. But that’s only the first act…
CHAPTER THREE, in which Nicole Kidman confirms her Godliness
I love Nicole Kidman, I truly do. Not because she’s the most beautiful woman in the world (which she might be), but because she’s so radiant and complex and moving on screen, at least when she’s given good parts, which she’s had plenty of in the past few years. Here she’s Grace, a mysterious, alluring woman who arrives in Dogville after running away from gangsters. Her presence is met with suspicion by the townspeople, but eventually they accept her, then increasingly take advantage of her, which she tolerates as they run a risk by hiding her and it’s only natural that they would expect something in return, right? But that’s only the second act…
CHAPTER FOUR, in which we wonder what it means
As Grace’s story unfolds, it forms a stunning illustration of the fear of the unknown and the marginalization of the lower-class, if not an allegory of slavery. Or maybe it’s about survival of the fittest in a dog-eat-dog world, or about the struggle between good and evil in the human soul, or maybe even the Anti-Americanism some jokers in Cannes accused Lars von Trier of. Whatever it may be, it’s fascinating and we can’t wait to see how it will end…
CHAPTER FIVE, in which a great picture turns out to be a masterpiece
Don’t fret, I won’t spoil it, and I advice you not to let anyone do so either. What I will say is that “Dogville” builds towards the most unexpected, riveting climax since raining frogs. It brings in a perfectly cast figure who takes part in a downright Shakespearean confrontation, and everything that came before is elevated in the process. For three straight hours, von Trier does everything possible not to make you forget that everything you’re watching is staged, yet in spite (or maybe because) of this, we remain utterly engrossed and the payoff is as thought-provoking as it is breathtaking. Ultimately, “Dogville” is without a doubt one of the most brilliant films I have had the chance to experience.