it resonates more than anything else i saw all year.
Bingo. I can't get it out of my head.
I also haven't been so conflicted over a film since Kill Bill
.And the Audience Says Woof
It seems to me that Lars von Trier has outdone himself with Dogville (2003)
. If you loved him before, you'll probably fawn over this picture. If you hated him...well, maybe you shouldn't see it.
Personally, I find von Trier to be an endlessly fascinating and often frustrating filmmaker. That doesn't mean I particularly like him or his movies, but that I'm merely intrigued by him and his work. Dogville
is no exception. As with Breaking the Waves (1996)
, The Idiots (1998)
and Dancer in the Dark (2000)
, von Trier has gone to great lengths in Dogville
to alienate his audience and has succeeded absolutely at doing so. I don't think it's his best post-Dogme film [or his worst], but it's easily his coldest.
Where von Trier's personal [and distinct] style was used in his earlier pictures to suggest docudramatic reality, it actually does the opposite in Dogville
. Handheld cameras are still employed [and still create of a sort of intimacy between audience and image], but it's fairly obvious that this is no longer an aesthetic choice, but a personal preference [and I believe von Trier has actually verified this himself]. And even if there was some aesthetic purpose to the nature of Dogville
's photography, von Trier's other stylistic choices would render it irrelevant anyway. The minimalist and highly presentative set is reminiscent of George Mosher's filmed production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1989)
, and indeed the film seems to be taking many of its cues not only from the theatre and its innovators, but from Wilder's play also. It is this bizarre style – the set, the title cards, the omnipresent voice of the Narrator – that ultimately prevents the audience from ever getting too close to the characters and the story. However [and here's the real conundrum], nobody ever actually said that von Trier was trying
to engage us emotionally. Dogville
is not a film of emotions, but of ideas – both specifically political and universally philosophical [not to mention aesthetic]. To that end, von Trier was almost wholly successful.
It's all very Brechtian, of course – and all very calculated on the part of von Trier. In one of the film's more uncomforting sequences, Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård) rapes Grace (Nicole Kidman) on the floor of his home, where she has been minding his children. This scene, more than any other, really illustrates how in control of his art von Trier is. He chooses to frame the rape from afar – not intimately as we may expect – and thus, as the set is without walls, the camera seems less uninterested in Grace's plight than it is in the other citizens of Dogville. It's unsettling, because we realise that the camera's apathy is our own. We fail to [really] connect with Grace on an emotional level [as we usually do with the characters in other films] and then we are unsettled by this when we realise it.
But our inability to connect to Grace isn't von Trier's shortcoming as a filmmaker – it's ours as people. The film has been deliberately constructed to show us this, and von Trier is again almost wholly successful in doing so. Yes, he seems very excited by the idea of tricking his audience in order to make them feel bad about themselves. His less-than-subtle manipulation of the audience has prompted many to think of him a sort of cinematic sadist – someone who is "abusing" cinema, and who holds the audience in an eternal state of contempt. I'm not saying that this isn't partly the case [actually, I think it is], but it's certainly not the full one. Brechtian alienation techniques have a far greater purpose than that, and Lars von Trier [slightly skewed though he may be] is not oblivious to this fact.
The theatrical nature of Dogville
and its heavy reliance on Brechtian technique clearly suggest that von Trier is sick of audiences going to the cinema to escape the world and its issues – he is sick of audiences "leaving their brains at the door". Is there really anything wrong with wanting to teach? von Trier wants to make the audience think, and maybe even learn a little something about themselves – even if it's something that they may not like. The most contrived moment of the film [and the one in which von Trier's influence feels most ubiquitous] is Grace's extreme change of heart at the film's climax. The scene, like the general artifice of the film's visual style, makes it impossible to really believe what is happening – but that's the whole point. We're not supposed to believe fables and parables; we're just supposed to learn from them. Dogville
is not a film you can escape into the false "reality" of – it forces you to think about what is being said as opposed to what is happening. Its mission is not like that of other films and von Trier's is not like that of other filmmakers. As far as Grace's character goes, it's a pretty unbelievable moment [and I would imagine for many, too extreme a turnaround] though in regards to von Trier's manipulation of the audience, it's actually sorta perfect – we've left ourselves open [just like Dogville]. As an audience [and as people], we automatically feel that we deserve the mercy Grace is willing to offer us – but the thing is we don't, and that's the final lesson. We're not worthy of Grace [both the character and the state of being], because we're ultimately no better than dogs. It's not a "nice" lesson to learn, of course, and Dogville
is not a "nice" film to sit through – but who on Earth said it was, and who on Earth said it had to be?
At the very least, Lars von Trier knows what he's doing. You just have to ask yourself if that's good enough for you, and it very well might not be. Some would say that von Trier is a genius because he has such an acute ability to manipulate. Others would call him evil. But the only difference between the sort of manipulating done by Lars von Trier and that done by someone like Steven Spielberg is that the former is manipulating you in a way that makes you feel and think things that you might not like, while the latter is trading in more visceral sensations. There's nothing better or worse about either one, of course – they both have their purpose. Whether or not they serve it is the question, and the answer is much too subjective for me to answer. You have to do that for yourself. So see the film. You'll love it or hate it. To each his personal own.