Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)

A funny thing happened on my way to forming an opinion about and writing on “Dogville.”  I caught a few glimpses of it on IFC a few nights ago: a few scenes here and there while I was flipping through the channels, but nothing too substantial.  Of course the first thing I noticed was how the only set was the soundstage, with few props and the buildings represented by chalklines on the floor.  Intriguing, I thought, but probably executed terribly and probably ending up as pretentious.  I got more worried as I randomly flipped back to IFC to see things like Lauren Bacall gardening crudely-drawn shrub outlines on the ground, people opening doors that aren’t there, John Hurt’s sarcastically fairy tale-like narration, a little boy with vocabulary way too advanced for someone his age literally blackmailing Nicole Kidman into spanking him, a rape in one of the “houses” with unsuspecting townspeople in clear view, and Nicole Kidman, imprisoned, dragging what’s basically a ball and chain.  They’re all images and words and things as random as can be, and I thought they were all as stupid as can be.  Here’s a film, I thought, that’s intriguing in its look, but ultimately trying to be way too intelligent for its own good to the point of utmost pretention.  Is the complete lack of scenery meant to heighten the human element and the traits of the characters?  If that’s the case, why such haughty dialogue that doesn’t feel real in any way, to the point that you know von Trier’s trying to make a grand point about the dark side of humanity but just loses his grip?  Maybe it’s supposed to be a myth thing, with the exaggeratedly sparse set and the even more exaggerated people and their speak and their increasingly bizarre and cruel treatment of the beautiful fugitive in their midst.  But just to be frank, the mere image of Nicole Kidman getting systematically raped and then dragging around a heavy iron wheel like it’s the fucking Scarlet Letter is just silly, I thought, no matter what the context.

But like I said, a funny thing happened on my way to forming a complete opinion of “Dogville.”  I wanted to prove to myself that my thoughts concerning the film’s pretentions and overreaching flaws based on a few select scenes were true, so I got my hands on the movie and watched all 3 hours from beginning to end.  And the funny thing that happened?  I liked what I saw…at least a good deal of it.  Yes, I was actually drawn in by it, and my plans for a scathing review were pretty much dashed.  Now don’t get me wrong, the dialogue too clever and WAY too wordy for its own good is still there and still pissed me off, and the execution of what we see was far from perfect, but I was at least able to accept what I saw and got drawn in by the plight of the mysterious Grace, fugitive from gangsters in this isolated Depression-era town.  Like I said, still abundant are the overly-philosophical conversations (like those between Grace and the her wannabe-lover, the self-proclaimed philosopher but hopelessly spineless and inept Tom), the bizarrely simplistic look that ultimately becomes a distraction, and story and dialogue that try to be simple but become pretentious and pretty much retarded, but the difference between my first exposure to the film and the second is that I was able to get to know each and every person in this small town, to the point that I could begin to accept their quirks and obvious flaws in the film’s execution.  Flaws they may be, but at least von Trier stayed consistent with the flaws and the style so that you could identify the people by the flaws of what you see and experience, so that as fake as they may be when comparing it to real life or even a more realistic film, they’re consistent so that it feels something close to “right” in this one film’s context.  Relationships and character quirks are established, from the blind loner in denial to the hypochondriac town doctor to the stifled mother of all of the town’s children, and while I might not necessarily agree with their portrayal or how silly they and the story around them is, like I said, von Trier stays consistent, so they seem genuine in their strange little way and I enjoyed their various transitions from insulated to accepting of Grace to suspicious to ravenous.

I ended up getting drawn into the story and Grace’s ever-shifting relationship with the town of Dogville, but where I drew the line was what was obviously von Trier’s absolutely xenophobic views concerning the greedy and dark aspects of humanity, and what many critics have seen as his anti-American views.  I don’t really think in real life an entire town, no matter how isolated in the Rockies, would become that despicable and resort to using an outsider as an imprisoned sex slave.  Now granted, like I said “Dogville” clearly isn’t going for realism in any way, so the town’s downfall into chaos and depravity is probably meant as pure metaphor and nothing more, but even still, such a hopeless view of humanity (or America depending on how you view it) becomes so incredibly stifling, and the portrayal of that view so simplistic and up-front, that I really couldn’t take it seriously at all.  Add to that Grace’s confrontation with gangster James Caan, where von Trier practically preaches his hopeless views to you with overly-wordy and philosophical dialogue nearly as bad as The Matrix Reloaded (yeah, I’m serious, because it actually did reminded me of that piece of shit at the time), and of course Grace’s complete 180 in character and the apocalyptic fate of Dogville, and you have to wonder just what von Trier’s trying to get across.  Is Dogville truly representative of a xenophobic America, completely unwelcoming of ousiders and their views, depravity lurking in their outward goodwill?  And to that effect, are Grace and the gangsters representative of true gangbusters who should be charged with cleansing what von Trier clearly sees as a threat and a nuisance?  It’s a very unclear and even borderline dangerous viewpoint, and that extreme ending left me stunned, confused, and ultimately angry.  Bottom-line, “Dogville” is a bold film with fascinating execution and a set-up that I got drawn into despite my best efforts 😛 , but also a film whose message is so simple and bare (as portrayed by characters just as simple and bare) that it is what it is: a piece of experimentation far too long, far too meandering in making you confused as to who to root for, the depraved Dogville or the depraved gangsters, and far too flawed for me to take seriously.  3 hours later, I don’t see von Trier or his magnum opus as an eye-opener and a serious message, I see the film as an intriguing experiment in taking the film medium to new places but little more, and I see him as a whiner and a complainer and a windbag, and not even he quite knows what he’s saying or how to say it.

6.5/10

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