There will be two groups of people to leave the experience that is seeing Dogville: those who think it is an amazing achievement, and those who don’t have a clue what the first group smoked before watching the movie. I dare you to find out which group you belong to.
In a thought: most Americans (and moviegoers in Canada and Mexico for that matter) will probably hate this movie. Having said that, and considering that I’ve given this movie a rather high rating, one might jump to the conclusion that I don’t like Americans. Nothing could be farther from the truth. However, as incredible as this movie is, it is still written and filmed in a style that will more rapidly appeal to European audiences. Most Americans, many of whom will readily try a deep fried Kit-Kat bar or go sky diving on a dare, just aren’t used to this type of flick and, therefore, won’t give it the chance it deserves. So, I repeat, most Americans will probably hate this movie.
To my mind, all the more reason that some of them should watch it. I don’t say that because it has anything profound to offer the American people specifically. No, I make this suggestion because seeing this movie will truly stretch the average American viewer in ways that will probably make them uncomfortable. And sometimes that’s a good thing.
Lars von Trier is a Danish writer/director whom most folks will recognize as the man behind Dancer in the Dark. Trier’s apparent fascination with the “American Spirit” takes on a whole new dimension with his latest project, Dogville. The film takes a very stark, very honest look at a depression-era American township and how its inhabitants react to the presence of an unwanted stranger.
Dogville - Quietly tucked away near the crags of the American Rockies, it is a small place that seems to be dying from the financial and spiritual starvation of the Great Depression. Its inhabitants aren’t particularly exceptional people, and they probably strike you as being more symbolic of something tragic than your average movie character. Everyone seems to have a purpose but no one is serving it. Everybody seems to have potential, but nobody’s living up to it. It’s the kind of eerily quiet place you’d expect to stumble onto in a John Steinbeck novel.
Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) is the son of Thomas Edison Sr. (no apparent relation to the inventor). One of the township’s twenty or so inhabitants, Tom is something of a self-styled philosopher. He spends his days wandering Dogville’s main street, Elm St., aware of an unspoken problem that the citizens of the township seem to have. His desire is to break them of this mysterious dilemma, but he’s not sure how to achieve it. Then one day, the answer to this odd problem wanders into town.
Enter Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious and beautiful young woman in a rather expensive looking, torn coat. Shortly after Tom hears unusual gun shots off in the distance, Grace shows up in town. Not long after that, a very expensive, very mysterious car also shows up, looking for a girl who has run away. An unseen man in the car indicates that he is “very concerned for this girl’s welfare” and that there will be a very generous reward for anyone who helps to find her.
Tom convinces the skeptical members of the township that Grace’s presence is a blessing and that in return for giving her refuge from her pursuers, Grace could try to meet some need of each member of the town. This arrangement starts out rough, but eventually the town carves out a place for Grace who falls in love with this place that is so willing to let her give back to them. Tom begins to feel that he has solved the town’s terrible problem. But soon, where the people once gave, they begin to ravenously take, and the town’s deep seeded nature of suspicion and desperation breaks through. Tom and Grace’s plan backfires as Dogville shows its true colors, leaving the two of them in a far more dangerous situation than they would have ever expected.
The acting in this movie is astonishing. Nicole Kidman is phenomenal in what I consider to be her best played role ever. Her depth and vulnerability make her so believable that at times I didn’t recognize her. Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara, Stellan Skarsgård (don’t hate him because he did King Arthur), Chloë Sevigny, Philip Baker Hall, to name a few, are a part of one of the most robust dramatic ensemble casts I’ve ever seen in the cinema.
So why would such a film, set in a historic American period and starring a predominantly American cast, be something Americans wouldn’t enjoy. Frankly, most American’s just aren’t ready for it.
Dogville certainly isn’t an achievement ahead of its time. In fact, it’s the opposite. It regresses to a greater time when lighting and music, not computer graphics, created the moment. It creates the sensation of watching a play on a stage, an experience sadly foreign to most Americans these days. The film is shot entirely on a practically bare soundstage. Chalk outlines mark where buildings should be. Doors are invisible and can only be heard, not seen. Most of the set is left to the viewer’s imagination to complete. Like watching a play, you have to work to watch this movie, an effort that will be rewarded if you see it through to the end.
Another problem audiences may have with this movie is its length. It clocks in at just under three hours, but doesn’t offer audiences the fast pace and riveting fight sequences like other time titans such as Braveheart and The Return of the King. Instead, it breaks itself down into ten mini-acts referred to as chapters, each complete with sentence synopsis. It’s an interesting effect, but doesn’t improve the show’s pacing.
It’s hard to tell whether this lengthiness is genius or ignorance on the director’s part. The slightly torturous running time could be an egotistical writer’s refusal to fully edit his work. It could just as well be a brilliant choice to help the watcher understand the slow draw of time that is life in Dogville. While I did enjoy the movie, I’m still unsure which of those two options I believe.
The degree of sexual content in the film will also be a challenge to a lot of viewers. It’s not the kind of pseudo-romantic, over-glorified, tantalizing sex that Hollywood is obsessed with these days. Its presence in the film is painfully honest and true to human nature and is designed to make the viewer understand the harsh reality of the moment.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning the genius that Trier and his cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, display with the camera. The audience’s ability to see what’s going on everywhere in the town at all times (because the walls are imaginary) creates an intimate setting that most film directors would be terrified to tackle. Add on top of that the choice to use a slightly unsteady, hand held camera and an unfinished post-process image, and you get a very gritty, unpolished effect that keeps you from forgetting that you are on the outside looking in. Trier doesn’t always get it quite right, but the fact that he succeeds so often and so well deserves noting.
Dogville is a movie experience unlike anything I’ve ever watched. I’m pretty quiet when I watch my movies, but this one had me vocalizing my amazement, especially during its incredible final act. This film is definitely not for everyone. But if you are up for a challenge, this movie will be a wrenching, rewarding experience that you will not soon forget.
This movie has been released twice on DVD. The first was an exclusively European release, which apparently has several hours of fascinating extras. Americans aren’t so fortunate. The American version (which I review here) is a single disc package with a sad little array of extras. In fact, there are only two goodies to speak of.
Being an American release of the disc, it includes the American version of the movie trailer. If you watch the trailer and then watch the movie, you’ll have absolutely no clue how the two are possibly related. The trailer boasts big, dramatic music with sweeping, dramatic taglines and intense, dramatic voice-overs. I was expecting a Danish Gone With The Wind. Now that I look back on it, I’m a little ticked. Dogville was a great movie, but the movie they were advertising in the trailer didn’t look half bad. I kinda want to see it too.
The other bonus feature is the director/cinematographer commentary. They don’t get around to discussing much of general interest. They spend most of the movie talking about technical aspects of the production such as camera angles, lighting, and the metamorphosis of the set throughout the film. If you’re a film student you might get some use out of it. Otherwise, it’s a dull ride.
So what don’t we get with the American release? Apparently, while the movie was being filmed, a little building with a camera and a chair was set up where the cast and crew could go to talk about the day’s filming, share an anecdote, express a frustration, curse the director and otherwise vent their thoughts and feelings about the movie and the process. Much of this footage was compiled into a featurette called Dogville: Confessions. It looks extremely interesting and some of its footage was, in fact, the centerpiece of the movie trailer in Europe. I find it ironic that the American release doesn’t include it since MTV all but invented the concept of the video confessional.
American audiences will have to go to one of the movie’s two official European web sites to get any glimpse of the confessions (from the European trailer). The American web site only offers the same trailer from the American release DVD. Fortunately the official Denmark site (http://www.tvropa.com/Dogville) is also available in English. If you’re hard up for a good time, you can try wandering around in Danish first and then jump over to the English version to see how you did.
Despite not having much in the way of extras, the movie still makes the DVD worth renting…if you’re up to the challenge.