Criterion Prediction #134: Dogville, by Alexander Miller
Director: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Harriet Andersson, Jean Marc-Bar, Blair Brown, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, Udo Kier, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Chloe Sevigny, Zeljko Ivanek
Synopsis: The town of Dogville seems a haven for Grace, when it’s revealed that gangsters pursue her. While it appears the quaint backdrop of 1930s small-town Americana, the local populace collectively wager Grace’s respite with chores and favors that grow from menial to dehumanizing as this small populace transform innocent to sadistic.
Critique: Lars Von Trier has some issues with women. I don’t know what they are (and I want to), but as is the case with compelling artists, it’s their challenging views and interpretations that make their work so uniquely rewarding. While Von Trier’s fascination with the fallen woman narrative is occasionally difficult, there’s a unique dimension to his Thornton Wilder esque Dogville. He seems to channel the Catholic guilt/Old Testament pugilism toward his female protagonists. This pattern takes shape in 1996 where the devout Bess in Breaking the Waves epitomizes the madonna/whore dichotomy (so much it would make Paul Schrader blush) and continues with Selma’s brutal journey in his revisionist musical Dancer in the Dark. While this would take us to more audacious Antichrist and the Nymphomaniac duology, Dogville felt at the time intrinsically connected to his prior work.
This film also features a tortured woman at the heart of the narrative, but the finale where, Grace, after enduring all manner of abuses, brings about the destruction of the town and its inhabitants is a perversely ironic and even funny finale. There is a high-tourist/low-tourist contrast in the Von Trier’s work; and it informs his stagey aesthetic furnishings. Dogville settles into its folksy artifice and, like all of Von Trier’s work, it’s a bold stylistic move that shouldn’t work but is one of the film’s guiding creative tenets. The ascension or fluctuation that occurs in Dancer in the Dark and Dogville is the director’s evocation of America’s past. In Dancer, Von Trier’s realization is intentionally ugly. In Dogville, he dispenses with look and veneer entirely and in his vulgar treatment of folksy Americana lands in pace with his artistic pretensions and haughty moralizing. There’s an air of cathartic expression through the Tom Edison character, given his egotistical trumpeting of Grace’s fate and his directly targeted death; it does seem like Von Trier has some sense of humor about his work.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: If there isn’t a Blu-ray of Dogville yet, chances are it’s getting prepped for a Criterion release. Lars Von Trier’s 2003 film did enjoy some success in North America (due to it’s massive, all-star cast and critical momentum) and in the mid-2000’s was an easily accessible title at your local library or anywhere that was still renting movies. There haven’t been too many overt hints that Dogville will be a part of The Criterion Collection; but, in preparation for this week’s column, I was able to see the film again on FilmStruck. And with Von Trier’s presence in the collection, it stands to reason that Dogville will (hopefully) have a spine number, sooner than later.