Monday Movie: Dogville, by Alexander Miller
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of Dogville originally ran as a Criterion prediction.
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.