Dogville: failing to understand complexities and contradictions of American people, culture and history

Lars von Trier, “Dogville” (2003)

First in a series of films on American culture from Lars von Trier’s own rather idiosyncratic viewpoint, “Dogville” is a minimalist parable on how good people quickly turn nasty and commit acts of evil. Dogville is a tiny hamlet located in rural Colorado; the setting is some time during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A young woman, Grace (Nicole Kidman), is on the run from gangsters and comes to Dogville. The young town philosopher Tom (Paul Bettany) persuades the sceptical townsfolk to accept Grace as a refugee in a social experiment he is conducting on the town’s ability to be open and accepting of others. The Dogville denizens initially put Grace to a test lasting two weeks during which she assists with the town’s work. After that test, Grace is accepted by the town. In the months that follow, law enforcement officers arrive on two occasions to inform the Dogville residents that Grace is a fugitive who may be connected to crime. The townsfolk’s attitudes toward Grace change and they begin to abuse and exploit her in the most sordid and disgusting ways. She is chained up and forced to wear a heavy collar around her neck, the men use her as a prostitute, the women accuse her of sluttish behaviour and even the children of the town treat her like dirt. Finally Tom, who is supposedly in love with Grace, pulls out a business card given him by the gangsters earlier in the film to call them to come and take Grace away.

Unfortunately when the gangsters do come for Grace, the film’s punchline is revealed: rather than Tom using Grace as a tool in his social experiment, Grace was using Dogville as a laboratory and pawn in her own ongoing bizarre intellectual debate with her Mafia dad (James Caan) on the nature of evil in humans and the role that forgiveness – for Grace has been forgiving towards the townspeople in spite of their abusive and degrading behaviour – should play in how she deals with them. Daddy accuses Grace of being arrogant for constantly overlooking the townspeople’s motivations and reasons for abusing Grace and excusing their behaviour due to the peculiar circumstances in which she has come to the town; she is an outsider with an understandably shady past, police officers have warned the people about her and the town has been isolated for so long that hospitality towards outsiders does not come natually to them.

The film alludes to von Trier’s earlier film trilogy (“Breaking the Waves” / “The Idiots” / “Dancer in the Dark”) of the golden-hearted girl who gives of herself unceasingly and without question until she has nothing left to give and even then is willing to sacrifice her life to keep on giving; but mostly it’s an exposition of a pessimistic view of humanity and its potential for redemption. (Perhaps von Trier himself got fed up with his golden-hearted heroines’ unceasing passivity and goodness and decided it was time Grace took collective revenge on their behalf as well as her own.) The townsfolk come to dislike Grace because she is a mirror of what is lacking in their lives or what they try to suppress in their natures in order to live from day to day. Von Trier seems to suggest that ultimately humans do not deserve to survive because when they meet something good that does not come with strings, they ultimately trash it. Morality or what passes for morality and ethics in Dogville is shown to be very fragile, especially when the realisation dawns on Tom and the townsfolk that Grace has very few choices and the safest choice for her is to stay in Dogville forever. Thus the people turn her into a slave.

I admit I am uneasy about this film: by reducing the world to a small town and filming the story on a stage with props, von Trier ends up over-simplifying the view that people are basically quite shitty in their natures and will resort to abusive behaviour given the right circumstances. An inkling that all’s not quite right with the town comes early in the film in Tom’s own behaviour as a self-styled thinker and town philosopher who lives off his father’s fortune and the way in which he decides to use Grace in his experiment to expose the flaws in the town’s communal mentality. Of course, Tom himself is undone by his experiment: he is just as mean-spirited as the townsfolk and in fact is even more so as he betrays Grace to the gangsters seeking her. There is nothing in the film about the role that other institutions and historical factors , such as the former institution of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans by whites in Colorado and the exigencies of the Great Depression might possibly have on the townspeople, to say nothing of the effects of social and cultural isolation from other communities on the people. There also isn’t anything about the town’s economy mentioned and how it might contribute to the people’s treatment of Grace: it seems significant to me that during her stay in Dogville, Grace has to work for wages to pay for board and her acquisition of a set of figurines and that the work she does, as well as her status in town, influences what she is paid. As her social status decreases, her work becomes more onerous and dangerous, and her pay drops.

Ultimately the film’s message seems to be that no matter how much grace is bestowed upon humans, human nature is so dark it cannot really be redeemed and in such a situation humanity is better off destroyed so that the world can be cleansed and be born anew. This is a despairing conclusion and one that belittles the acting performance given by Kidman as Grace. Kidman displays understated elegance in playing a Christ-like character who suffers endlessly and who represents a New Testament view of God as loving and forgiving. Bettany is quite good as the would-be disciple and Caan plays a judgemental mafia version of God who challenges Grace’s continued desire to forgive by suggesting that this desire arises from her own arrogance. (Say that again?) Other fine actors like Lauren Bacall and Patricia Clarkson play fairly minor roles that could have been performed by others far less talented.

There is an underlying theme of the abuse of power by both the townsfolk and also by Grace and her godfather dad through the social and religious institutions these people have grown up with. Von Trier does not make much out of how individuals use religion, culture and social mores to gain and misuse power, nor how such institutions are moulded or lend themselves to people in ways that make the acquisition and abuse of power easy or difficult. The character of Tom is significant in this respect: he may have his real-life parallel in those sections of academia, science, industry, culture, religion, media and other intelligentsia who happily co-operate with their masters in government in oppressing the ordinary people but who just might find themselves thrown under a bus should the powers that be wish to dispense with their services.

I have the impression that von Trier in his own way was trying to grapple with the contradictions and paradoxes of an America that posits itself as a land of freedom, equality and democracy with the country where slavery lasted so long and racial prejudice has poisoned and corrupted many of its institutions, where money talks louder and more powerfully than abstract ideals and corrupts American people and their social, religious, political and economic institutions; and what he came up with is a comment on American society as he sees it from his narrow point of view without really exploring and understanding it much. It’s easy to sheet the blame home on a biologically deterministic view of human nature. As a result, despite the efforts of Kidman and company in giving life to the characters of “Dogville”, the film comes across as overly earnest, a bit shallow and very confused.

 

 

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