Dogville
review by Carrie Gorringe, 19 September 2003

Toronto International Film Festival 2003

The most welcome surprise of the festival was the arrival of Lars von Trier, in two films, both as director and actor, and both in top form. Von Trierís much-anticipated Dogville is, despite its 177-minute running length and its horrifying subject matter -- the progressive dehumanization of one Grace Margaret Mulligan (Nicole Kidman), a young woman on the run from gangsters in 1930ís America -- well worth the effort of slogging through to a very satisfying coda. Once Grace arrives in town, the people of Dogville appear to accept her need for help, especially Tom (Paul Bettany), a failed writer who seems trapped by the townís stifling boredom, its corruption, isolation and hypocrisy, as he sees it. Itís obvious that Grace is in serious trouble; no sooner is she hiding in the townís abandoned mine, then a large car pulls up on Elm Street, a hand proffers a business card to Tom, and a mysterious voice implores him to call with any information concerning her whereabouts. After the visit, the people of Dogville offer her refuge for a two-week trial period. In exchange, the grateful Grace volunteers to do chores for them. Soon, she has a very busy schedule and has won their affection: most appropriately, at a Fourth-of-July picnic, they offer her permanent residence.

Dogville is, however, a small town, with its share of unspoken, petty rivalries and hidden lusts, and it isnít long before Grace, with her beauty and intelligence, innocently manages to run afoul of every one of them. She is gradually turned into a slave, forced by verbal and physical abuse to follow everyoneís wishes to the letter. Desperate, she attempts escape, but is betrayed, and returns to Dogville, where she is forced to endure the ultimate indignity: chained to her bed with a heavy steel collar around her neck, she becomes the town whore.

Embarrassed by what her and their actions have inadvertently revealed to the people of Dogville about themselves, they conspire to get rid of her, and they think they know how to do it very cleanly and conveniently. However, Grace has a few surprises in store for themÖ

In lesser hands, this torturous unfolding of Peyton-Place-meets-the-Gulag would be all but intolerable, and at times it seems as if von Trier is laying things on a little too thickly; the minimalist Our Town sets, in which all of the actors are reduced to running around on little more than a painted outline on a soundstage, do tend to overstate the pettiness of Dogville itself, to the point where one wants to pull out oneís hair at the overbearing obviousness of it all (or maybe itís the gameboard-like symbolism of the sets, with all of the actors as pawns in von Trierís sadistic psychological game). What saves Dogville the film from becoming like its dreary fictional counterpart is the spirit that the actors bring to the project. Kidman and Bettany play their roles like cool poker players, each never revealing their intentions until the final moments of the film, adding to the tension of the piece. Von Trier also deftly supplies them with excellent supporting actors such as Chloe Sevigny and Patricia Clarkson. Throwing in a few veterans such as Ben Gazzara and Lauren Bacall only adds to the richness of the psychological mix. But it is the strength of the ending which reveals the deceptive simplicity of all that von Trier has presented beforehand. Both Grace and Tom have hidden surprises for each other and their final showdown has consequences for everyone in Dogville. It is to von Trierís credit that, in having saved up, as it were, all of the filmís energy for one slam-bang ending, he has left no inconsistencies or contradictions in its wake.

According to some reports, Dogville is supposed to be the beginning of a planned trilogy which von Trier intends to make as an "indictment of America" (just in case the directorís attitude isnít clear, the final credits consist of David Bowie singing "Young American" over WPA photos from the Depression). Not to take anything away from von Trierís achievements, but this sort of exclusion and persecution is not an exclusively American phenomenon, as the course of history makes depressingly evident. This is not the sort of so-called selfish individualism that tends to make those of anti-American sentiments sit up and start ranting, unless one wants to think of Dogville in the aggregate as a group acting in sinister, conformist lockstep, and itís a valid argument. Still, von Trier might want to immerse himself more profoundly in American culture before attempting number two.

Toronto International Film Festival Coverage:

 

Written and
Directed by:

Lars von Trier

Starring:
Nicole Kidman
Harriet Andersson
Lauren Bacall
Jean-Marc Barr
Paul Bettany
Blair Brown
James Caan
Patricia Clarkson
Jeremy Davies
Ben Gazzara
Philip Baker Hall
Thom Hoffman
Siobhan Fallon
John Hurt
Zeljko Ivanek

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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