Three Movies – Dogville

I first saw Dogville a couple of years ago, when it first came out on video. I knew nothing about the movie when I rented it—I just walked into the video rental store, saw it on the wall, and thought it looked interesting, so I picked it up.

I thought it was a great movie, a couple of years ago, which is why I recommended it. While waiting for its arrival, via Netflix, I had the misfortune to read Roger Ebert’s review of Dogville. The first time I saw the movie, I didn’t know that Dogville was an indictment, by Lars Von Trier (writer/director) of the United States. Knowing Von Trier’s views was bothersome, not because I’m pro U.S. or anything like that, but because this knowledge turned what I thought was an incredible telling of a dark story into a gross caricature, not unlike Team America minus the puppets, of rural and American life. Von Trier’s portrayal of rural America is a scathing commentary on all of America. According to Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard), the small town is just a poorer reflection of the big city, when he says, “I found out a long time ago people are the same all over…in a small town they’re just less successful.”

So it is with a bit of discomfort that I watched Dogville again. I thought I might have to watch it a couple of times, just to get over my new found knowledge of Von Trier’s attempts to disparage America. This proved to be unnecessary. With the opening, an overhead shot of a soundstage town, and the soothing, yet ominous voice of the narrator (John Hurt), I could almost erase Von Trier’s portrait of an America he’s never been to.

The physical town of Dogville is a set of blueprints laid out on a soundstage, everything is outlined, the homes, the mission house, the gooseberry bushes, even the dog. The opening and closing of doors was a little annoying, but the town setting is a representation of the people of Dogville. There is a hidden dimension in the transparency of the town. We see, but don’t necessarily hear what is going on in the outlined homes. The people of Dogville can be described as simple, country folk—what you see is what you get, but there is a hidden, darker side to these simple people. This might be an accurate portrayal of rural people by Von Trier, though not necessarily the darker side. Spending several years as a pastor of a rural church, I don’t believe that rural people are as “simple” as they are often made out to be.

There are three central characters in this film, the narrator, who paints the picture of this town set in the Rocky Mountains, Grace (Nicole Kidman)—the only likable character, who turns out to be a murderer, and Tom, who makes bad decisions throughout the film, ending with the town’s demise.

The first 45-50 minutes of the film was a little slow, though not overly so. While it didn’t drag, it was a little drawn out. This portion of the film represents the first two weeks of Grace’s stay in Dogville, with the rest of the two plus hours amounting to over a year in Dogville time. It is after these first two weeks that the film turns dark, and gets darker still, culminating in the extinction of Dogville. The tension builds throughout, with this simple lot turning violent and ugly.

The changing light on the town was a recurring theme in the film. The light of Dogville grows dim as the movie goes on, with a bright spot when Grace plans her escape from Dogville, only to fade again when her attempt is thwarted. The terror that Dogville becomes has its beginnings in fear, though we soon discover that this transformation has little to do with fear. The fear of a trouble more imagined than real is justification for the town’s exploitation of Grace. This is perhaps the truest statement Von Trier makes in the movie. It is fascinating how at first they exploit their own fear to take advantage of Grace, and then they exploit Grace’s own fear to abuse her, particularly the men of the town, as they have their way with her.

The acting is incredible. Grace is probably my second favorite Kidman role, my favorite being The Others. If there was once concern in regards to acting, it would be that the role of Ma Ginger might have been too small for an actor the caliber of Lauren Bacall, though like the others, I managed to despise Ma Ginger as well. All the townsfolk were despicable, especially Tom, who ironically, is trying to “help” Grace. To generate this kind of loathing that makes you cheer for the evil gangsters is just great acting.

Except for the demographics of the town (population of 15 plus children), Dogville is believable in the same way the Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is believable. While we might not be able to imagine such a place existing, Dogville is consistent unto itself.

10 Responses to “Three Movies – Dogville”


  1. Reid

    Did you feel like there was any religious or American kinds of allusions in the film that were important to the overall “meaning” of the film? What was the meaning of the film to you, if you feel like it had any?

    I’m not sure if this film was totally successful or not. I feel like Von Trier had an agenda and I’m not sure what that was or if he was entirely successful in realizing his vision. I did think it was a very interesting film, worthy of a analyzing and discussing.

    The film feels like a mixture of references and comments on American culture, politics and religion. I don’t know if it all comes together in a cohesive whole. To me the key scene is the discussion between Grace and the Big Man (James Caan). When I first saw the scene, I felt strongly that the scene was a conversation between God and Jesus–the Old Testament God and the New Testament one. The Big Man in a car with curtains–only to be drawn when the town is executed. Could this be Judgment Day when Jesus returns? Somehow I’m not completely satisfied with this interpretation. Yet, there is an unmistakable allusion to Christianity.

    Later, the conversation felt like a discussion between a liberal and conservative. Grace is excusing the bad behavior of the people on cirumstance and the Big Man is talking about personal responsibility. To me, there seems to be connection there, but that interpretation doesn’t feel like it fits exactly.

    As I said, I haven’t quite figured out what this film is about, but I don’t think it’s simply a straightforward film. Another thing to consider is that this is the first in a loose trilogy, so the understanding this film may depend heavily on the next two. Manderlay is the next film, and I know people who have already seen it.

  2. pen

    I “enjoyed” this dark, disturbing film and I look forward to seeing Von Trier’s next film and whether it clarifies or further muddies some of the possible themes in Dogville.

    Reid, Grace, Mitchell, Kevin and I saw this film together recently and some of the topics that arose in our subsequent discussion were about:

    1. A critique on capitalism. How people in a society driven by capitalism become commodities and lose their “humanness.” The citizens of Dogville begin seeing Grace as less than a person and more for her work-value as the movie progresses. In fact, when it seemingly becomes more dangerous to have her in town, they want to be compensated for it by making her work more and harder for them.

    2. This also led to a discussion about immigration and slavery. How a country may at first be reluctant to have newcomers, but once they see the “value” of these newcomers, they are willing to exploit this new workforce as long as the newcomers work hard at assimilating themselves within the general community. Also, the allusion to slavery by having Grace in chains and the men raping her, even though (in the beginning) she tries to get them to see her as a person. As human. As their friend Grace.

    3. As Reid mentioned in the post above, I believe we were all in agreement that a good argument could be made that there were strong religious overtones in this film. The main character is “Grace.” The town seems to fall from grace. There is judgment and there is that conversation about arrogance between Grace and her father at the end of the film.

    4. As John mentioned above, we also had a short discussion about the use of light in this film…both figuratively and literally. It is a “small change of light” that made Dogville beautiful and desirable to Grace when she first arrives; and it is again a “small change of light” that changes Grace’s mind about forgiving Dogville.

    I believe these were the main topics of discussion, although we also talked about other ancillary topics. Perhaps those who were present at this discussion can flesh out these topics more or correct me if I misrepresented our discussion.

  3. burgess

    Reid,

    I’m not sure if there was anything in the film that I would describe as particularly American–perhaps Von Trier’s description of a rural town could be American, but I wonder if this description is more universal–Do urbanites and suburbanites all over the world look with disdain at their rural countrymen? For Von Trier to suggest, if he is indeed suggesting, that the attributes of the people of Dogville are typically American, is a bit simplistic, and for Von Trier to blanket all of America under Dogville, is ridiculous. Yes, there is evil in our world, people are greedy, manipulative, intolerant, whatever, but we see this everywhere.

    I don’t know about religious allusions. I didn’t really see any, but I wasn’t really looking. If anything stands out for me, it is the idea that the mission house/church was not really as a meeting place for the community of faith–the making ordinary that which should be holy. Is this a comment on social religion, or the religion of nationalism–probably not.

    I think Von Trier was successful in putting out his vision of America. Though I might not agree with his vision, there are issues that the film raises, regardless of whether Von Trier means to bring them up or not.

    Expanding on Penny’s topic of capitalism and the exploitation of Grace, there is also a shady bit of accounting going on in how Grace accounts for her hours.

    Another topic is the people’s willingness to follow a weak leader in Tom. As I’ve mentioned previously, Tom does just about everything wrong, still the people follow him even if they do so reluctantly.

  4. Reid

    John,

    I don’t think Von Trier is simply saying that Americans are greedy, evil, etc. But there are some references to American culture and Americana that seem to be pretty significant. Here are some:

    Thomas Edison and Thomas Edison Jr. are names of prominent characters. I don’t think Von Trier just chose those names without any reference to America and American culture.
    The sets, to me, refer to the play Our Town, which is about an American small town. That play is like a warning–to appreciate and live your life fully, and Dogvillealso seems to have undertones of a message or lesson.
    The town comes together and accepts Grace on the Fourth of Julyl or something significant seems to happen on that day.
    The critique of capitalism is also another reference point, as America seems to be the epitome of capitalism.
    Immigration is also a big part of the American past and present.

    I also think the film deals with liberal and conservative politics very similar to the way these political positions manifest themselves in this country. I get the feeling that Von Trier usesTom Jr. as an attack or statire on liberals.

    Having said that I do think the film is also universal. It’s not only meant to be directed at America.

    But I don’t think the film looks at disdain rural people. I think the film attacks the romantized notion of rural life and people. Chuck seems to have come out to the country because he believes the people and the life are better, but he learns that’s not true. By the way, idealizing rural life is part of American history as well.

    As for the religious connections in the film, there is another reference that someone else pointed out to me, and that is the dog, Moses. Moses connotes the law and if you remember Moses barks at Grace for stealing his bone. Grace also allows Moses to live at the end, and the last shot is of Moses barking.

    Your phrase above, “exploitation of Grace” made me think of Bonhoeffer and his notion of “cheap grace.” Could Von Trier be commenting on American Christianity? Many Americans consider themselves Christians and caring people. The citizens of Dogville also think of themselves as decent caring people who would help someone in trouble. We that there is a darker side to their nature. America is seen by many as a “Christian nation, ” too.

    As for Tom Jr., I’m not sure what to think of him. I don’t think he’s really a leader that the people follow. He acts as if he’s a serious thinker and moral person, but he is none of these things as we see near the end of the film. I’m not sure about the meaning of the people listening to his lessons or his motivation to give lessons.

  5. pen

    Yes, I would like to think more about Tom Edison, Jr. and his role in the film. John brings up an interesting point. I think he is a town “leader” of sorts . . . beyond the fact that he is the son of the town doctor. The townspeople seem to reluctantly follow his lead. What does that say about Americans or people in general. Will we follow any leader that emerges, even if we do so “reluctantly?” The people grumbled, but due to their curiousity and desire not to miss out on anything, they all go to Tom Jr’s lectures. It seems obvious that he is a genuine seeker as much as a pompous, paternalistic pseudo-intellectual. (Wow, after I wrote this, it seemed much harsher than I intended).

    I’ve seen some of the recent “town meetings” where citizens have an opportunity to ask GWB questions. The questions are almost always prefaced by some compliment. One guy even asked, “how can I help you?” Obviously there are significant chunks of our citizenry happily following the lead of our current administration.

  6. Mitchell

    Is the “Tom Edison, Jr.” part supposed to refer to our current President’s being the son of a former President? It’s interesting to me that the “meetings” are very church-like but not really church at all.

  7. Reid

    Hmm, I never thought of the Bush Sr/Jr. connection. There could be something there.

    But Tom Jr. seems to be more of a liberal or a satirical portrait of one. Mitchell mentions the church like nature of the town meetings, and there is a connection. Tom Jr. talks about and prides himself in moral instruction, which is one of the reasons he finally turns against Grace when she reveals his moral weakness–basically, his humanity.

    Could Tom be a sort of liberal “do-gooder”–a liberal who believes he has the capability of making society better via his intellect? I think there may be something to that, but I don’t know if that explains everything.

    Btw, Manderlay, the second film in this loose trilogy will be playing at the Academy Theater in April.

  8. r

    Dogville is an excellent classical play. It is not about america but about human nature world wide. Self defense vs being a victim. Manipulation slavery and selling out vs claiming rsponsibility. It’s ok for dogs to be dogs but not people. That’s why gods wrath was spared on the dog. People should know better. I liked the dialogue between Grace and her father (god and his wife) in the end and when she blew out the mental images of Tom her co conspiritor caugtht in their own webs of deciet. Using each other for their own purposes. It makes you think about what you really want vs conning each other with crap. The theme get real. Taking personal responsibility (grace). Tom using people for his illustrations. Cant judge a town by its people. Seeing through people. Even the kids wern’t inocent. How all people manipulate each other for their own sick twisted ends. The ends do not justify the means. About peoples differnet personal versions (delusions) of what they think love is.
    This could be done better and deserves to be an international classic. It crosses boundaries race sex nation. It has a universal theme.

  9. burgess

    I would agree that the humanity portrayed in Dogville are more universal, though I believe the setting of the film, in rural America, shows the target of Von Trier’s indictment.

    When Mitchell asked about Tom Jr.reffering to our current president and son of a former president, one of the first things I thought of was “compassionate conservative”. Jr. sees himself not at all like his father, though in the end, we see he is more like his father, if not worse.

    The reference to James Caan as God, and Grace as God’s agent is interesting. Could this be a critique of Christ and the Church, more specifically, the “Christian right” as a dominant expression of the Church? In Caan, there is judgment with mercy, if you can call shooting the dog and nailing it to the wall mercy, whereas in Grace’s response there is no mercy. Is there a relationship between Grace’s response, as an agent of Christ, and the hateful rhetoric of many who claim to speak for Christ today?

  10. Reid

    I don’t know if I see the Big Boss and Grace as representing Conservative Christianity today. Grace’s behavior and attitude up to the last moment is more “New Testament” and steroypically liberal (i.e. blaming social environment). She was far from hateful, and was defending the people up until the last moment. The Big Boss’ rhetoric was more in line with an Old Testament god, and sterotypically conservative (i.e. emphasis on personal responsibility) But I’m not sure why she changes at the last minute and what that means. I took as an indictment of liberals capitulating to conservatives especially with regard to the war, but that feels like a stretch.

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