Films are intended to be seen with audiences, and I think that viewing DOGVILLE with a full house was instructive. That said, what I learned thoroughly appalled me. The laughter and applause at a crucial juncture in the film struck me as being nothing short of contrary to the point von Trier was making. Or maybe they made it for him. I haven't decided. This reaction is the kind of thing that makes you lose some faith in people.
I'm speaking in vagaries for now because I realize most haven't had the opportunity to see it--it opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 26--and to spoil the film would be malicious on my part. I think it's a masterpiece. You may well come out thinking that von Trier is a bastard, but the point he makes is undeniable. If you don't know anymore about the film, tread carefully because you're likely to come across something you don't want to know. This is the kind of film that rattles around your brain, and I feel like I have to get this all out now. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
Von Trier breaks the film into a prologue and nine chapters. The Depression-era story revolves around the porcelain-skinned beauty Grace (Nicole Kidman). She is running from gangsters and arrives in the small town of Dogville, which is nestled in the Rocky Mountains and removed from other localities. It's a safe place off the beaten path if the residents will permit her to stay.
The first person she encounters is Tom (Paul Bettany), the doctor's son who fancies himself a philosopher and writer. He takes her in and assures her that the fifteen adults living in DOGVILLE will be happy to let her stay. Maybe, maybe not. The townsfolk gather at the mission hall to decide, but despite Tom's attempts to persuade them, they remain unconvinced and are ready to send Grace on her way. Tom firmly believes that how the people of Dogville treat Grace will illustrate their decency. He asks that they give her two weeks to prove herself to them and they to her. The compromise is agreed upon, so Grace goes about trying to ingratiate herself to the citizenry.
At first no one has any work for Grace to do, but gradually everyone finds things they don't need to have done but will appreciate as her contribution to the community. This goes along well enough for a period of time. One day a policeman comes by looking for Grace. He even tacks up a "missing" poster with her photograph. The locals feel like they should tell the authorities that Grace is in Dogville, but they like having her there. Their quiet comes at a price. She must do double the amount of work, although no one wants to own up to believing she owes them anything.
After a long, productive stay in Dogville, it would seem that Grace should be an accepted member of the community. Instead, the greed and jealousy of these poor people intensifies, and Grace suffers at their hands because they feel this outsider is taking advantage of them. The situation worsens so much that Grace feels she has no choice but to leave.
DOGVILLE at first appears to be about the desire to despoil beauty and goodness, how by its very nature beauty can cause some to feel worse and thus want to destroy it. The film can also be read as an allegory for the exploitation of immigrants. Even the most enlightened people are out for themselves, as Tom shows in due time.
This is all very interesting stuff, but then comes DOGVILLE'S ninth chapter. The true subject von Trier is addressing is finally unmasked. We come to learn that Grace is the mob boss's daughter. She finds his belief of wiping the world clean of society's dregs to be arrogant. Yet her idealism has been questioned by the treatment given her in Dogville. She showed the townsfolk nothing but mercy and love and was increasingly punished for it. Grace finds that she must agree with her father and wants vengeance wreaked upon her tormentors. (It was at this point where some of the audience laughed and applauded, a totally unconscionable reaction and, in my view, not the director's intention.)
Grace transforms from a forgiving God figure to an avenging Old Testament deity who makes the sinners suffer for their misdeeds. It's a shocking turn that is true to von Trier's vision. Grace's father, played by James Caan, says that these people are like dogs, and you mustn't reinforce a dog's horrible nature. To forgive is wrong. Taken at face value, one could assume that the film is endorsing this view, but von Trier quite deliberately points out how it's one big circle, that the violence and injustice heaped upon the downtrodden is revisited upon the oppressors, not because these are wicked people but because the action begets the reaction. DOGVILLE doesn't leave one with a positive conception of humanity, but it is with a purpose. Von Trier demonstrates to powerful effect what happens in a world where mercy and forgiveness are unknown and unvalued qualities.
When DOGVILLE premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, some American critics found the picture to be virulently anti-American. DOGVILLE is certainly a very potent critique of the United States. The scenario could be applied elsewhere--look at the controversy regarding Muslim women in France wearing scarves on their heads--but it carries a particular sting in examining an America that likes to believe it is the great melting pot where everyone is free and has an equal opportunity to succeed. Von Trier doesn't pull any punches in challenging that image, and he further punctures it by having photos of America's underclass in history and present-day run underneath the end credits.
Issues of thematics and politics aside, DOGVILLE is a stunning technical work. The austere production, a set on a stage with minimal props, emphasizes the relative poverty of the town. The difference between public and private behavior is eliminated in the eyes of the audience for walls are merely lines drawn on the floor. Yet in this open environment, the town feels more stifling. Von Trier lays out Dogville's geography with masterfully composed overhead shots, high angles that also hint at a God looking down upon a world resistant to his message of love.
Von Trier's artistic genius makes DOGVILLE'S 177 minutes fly by. He aims to provoke so he can shake people out of their torpor. As his other melodramas show, at this von Trier is well practiced and successful. DOGVILLE may enrage viewers, both those who find it brilliant and those who consider it deplorable. I think getting angry is the point. The difference is how you direct it.