Lars von Trier
Denmark / Sweden / UK / France / Germany / The Netherlands, 2003
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source Nordisk Film / Zentropa DVD
It would be tempting to call Lars von Trier’s Dogville a cinematic original if it were not for the fact that it would only be a partial truth. It might be true that contemporary audiences have never really seen a film quite like it, but the fact of the matter is that everything in the film owes its origin to theatrical innovations of the past century. In its staging and structure, the film bears a strong yet superficial resemblance to The Royal Shakespeare Company’s landmark 1982 nine-hour production of David Edgar’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. That production, however, in turn owes a significant deal to the bare staging and omnipresent narrator-as-character devices of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town. Von Trier’s project also owes a great deal to the politically and morally driven theatre work of Bertholt Brecht (particularly his “The Rise and Fall of the Town of Mahagonny”) and his American devotee Marc Blitzstein.
While the bare sets and imaginative use of minimal props are relatively new to the cinema, at least in a major international co-production starring the currently most popular actress in the world, they are actually inventions of the 1930s, mostly of the government funded Federal Theatre Project and specifically of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. When the world of the stage began to throw off the dusty trappings of the melodramatic Victorian style in the early part of the twentieth century, new ways of presenting drama were explored. Sets became starker and more expressive, acting styles became less histrionic and more intuitive, and plays began to explore authentic ideas and political realities.
This series of advancements is something of a distant echo of the progression von Trier has made in his last four films. After completing a trio of unabashed melodramas he called the “Golden Heart Trilogy,” in which he used the character of the true-hearted, long-suffering heroine as a pen with which to write indictments of religion (Breaking the Waves), family (Idioterne), and law (Dancer in the Dark), the iconoclastic director has embarked on a new trio of films (the proposed U.S.A. Trilogy) which appears to have the intended goal of pissing off a lot of Americans by reminding them of their failures as a people during the Depression, the Civil War era, and another, as yet undetermined, dark period in the country’s history.
Dogville seems primarily concerned with the insularity (some might call it incestuousness) of small town life. It’s Our Town as written by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It is a rich vein of cinematic inspiration, mined before by folks like David Lynch, Fritz Lang, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and a host of others. The story of the film — a stranger brings trouble to town — has the simplicity of a fairy tale and could even have been one of the gruesome yarns spun by the Brothers Grimm. Despite the newly appropriated theatrical trappings, though, Dogville is a logical progression from the stories von Trier has fabricated in his last few films. Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace (the mind reels at the subtle touch of von Trier), is just as much a Golden Heart as the characters in the trilogy of the same name, it’s just that she doesn’t transcend the injustices visited upon her by dying or becoming a moron. She is the same old von Trier heroine but with a splash of vinegar.
In a recent post on her website, Björk described the experience of working under von Trier on Dancer in the Dark:
“[von Trier] needs a female to provide his work soul. and he envies them and hates them for it. so he has to destroy them during the filming. and hide the evidence. what saves him as an artist though is that he is so painfully honest that even though he will manage to cover up his crime in the “real” world (he is a genius to set things up that every body thinks it is just his female-actress-at-the-moment imagination, that she is just hysterical or pre-menstrual) his films become a documentation of this ‘soul-robbery.’”
While couched in the language of the conspiracy theorist, Björk has nonetheless divined precisely what critics have been hovering around yet never landing upon for years: von Trier is grossly misogynist, yet we make allowances for it because he is a genius filmmaker. However, his crime against cinema is not his apparent hatred of women (which, admittedly, is at the root of the problem), but that he seems not to have realized that the key to melodrama (and his films are unapologetically melodramatic, even when tarted up in Dogme 95 finery) is restraint. Douglas Sirk, a master of restraint in melodrama, was always at his worst when he let circumstance get the better of his characters. Witness the ludicrous piling on of tragedy after tragedy in Magnificent Obsession and you will see what I am getting at. When von Trier’s heroine is beaten and ostracized and exploited and repeatedly raped, it becomes too much. We do not sympathize with her because we become aware of the machinations of plot working to justify either her vengeful actions or her de facto sainthood and martyrdom. The excess of demoralization becomes not sad but ludicrous. And to heap the demoralization not just upon the central character but on the actress portraying her as well shows a lack of faith not just in the talent and abilities of the actress, but in the ability of the material to make its points clear without resorting to extrafilmic drama. We think Björk’s performance in Dancer in the Dark was brilliant because she became Selma. We think Kidman’s performance in Dogville is brave because she really did go through a lot of hardship. Moreover, we rely on those performances to be great because that is all there is to a Von Trier film. Take away Emily Watson’s heart-wrenching turn in Breaking the Waves and you have a TV-movie remake of Dreyer’s Ordet. Subtract Björk’s raw emotion and beautiful songs from Dancer in the Dark and you have a forgettable Lifetime Original that could star Patty Duke or Jean Smart. Lars von Trier’s particular genius seems to lie in concocting elaborate trials by fire for naïve actresses and then filming the tortured results with a shaky (and therefore authentic) camera. That is not to say that his films are not worth watching. They truly are. Whatever he does to these women seems to work. I simply question the methods he uses to achieve his results.
As I mentioned earlier in this review, Dogville is really nothing new. It is nothing new for cinema and it is nothing new for von Trier. Sure there are a few twist and turns in the tissue-thin plot, but overall, it is just another nervous breakdown captured on film. The only question you need to ask yourself in evaluating this film is, “How badly do I want to see Nicole Kidman crack up?” If, like most people, you cannot stand to see an actress working at the peak of her craft after suffering a humiliatingly public desertion by her husband of ten years; if, like von Trier, you like to see the most popular actress of her day thrown down and rutted on the floor; if, like many critics, you think high cinematic art is synonymous with psychological exploitation of both the cast and the audience, then there is no doubt that you will find Dogville to be an immensely rewarding experience.