Welcome to the Dollhouse

Lars von Trier’s inhuman Dogville.

Bettany and Kidman in Dogville: Von Trier gives America the finger

Movies can be like ecosystems. The open ones (say, the ensemble films of Jean Renoir or Robert Altman) allow for happenstance and complexity. They reveal persistent patterns of human interaction while still regarding human nature as fluid, unpredictable, and impossible to reduce to a thesis statement. The closed ecosystem films—and you could hardly find a more illustrious specimen than Lars von Trier’s Dogville (Lions Gate)—are the ones in which the artist leaves nothing to chance. The behavior is prescribed, the outcome foreordained, the cast composed of über-marionettes with a suitably constricted range of thought and emotion. Closed-ecosystem movies tend to elicit better reviews than open ones because they’re easier for critics to diagram. That’s the only way to account for a film like Dogville being hailed as a masterpiece instead of something that is, as Triumph the Insult Dog would say, to poop on.

Set in the ‘30s in an isolated hamlet in the Rocky Mountains, Dogville is intended as a stark parable of depravity. I would call it a Brechtian exercise, but that would be unfair to dear old Bertolt, who was hopeful about human nature and too large and sensual a poet to be straitjacketed by his politics. Not that there’s anything wrong with political art, but for all its didacticism and “alienation” effects, the politics of Dogville are on par with a third-rate gangster picture: cheap, opportunistic nihilism, with no enlivening sense of humor.

Clocking in at three long hours, Dogville is told in nine “chapters” and features a fairy-tale English narrator—John Hurt—whose voice drips with condescension. The black-box setting looks like a giant Monopoly game board, the characters its pawns. Walls and doors are mimed (key objects like the town’s beloved gooseberry bushes are outlined on the ground, with labels), and the lighting and overhead compositions are showily theatrical. A three-hour movie on one big set could be an exercise in claustrophobia, but I’ll admit that von Trier’s technique is excitingly raw: His hand-held camera is nervy and restless; his dialogues are broken by almost subliminal jump-cuts; and his close-ups suggest a probing, documentary intimacy. That said, when the camera gets in tight on his subjects, there’s nothing to see. I mean, nada y nada y pues nada. The actors are half-alive because the people they play are finally as one-dimensional as the zombies in Dawn of the Dead.

This is another of von Trier’s critiques of an America to which he has never been. (It was shot in Sweden *, of course.) The people speak in the stilted patois of early American realism: “Don’t give me any of your lip, Thomas Edison Jr., I’ll hoe as I please.” That’s the name of the male lead, by the way—Thomas Edison Jr. As played by the pale, wide-eyed, straw-haired Paul Bettany (in Huck Finn mode), he’s meant to show the superficial ingenuity and subterranean disingenuousness of the American character. A young man with a flamboyant conscience (he gives moral lectures and makes notes for an epic novel), he is also fatally opportunistic, with a roving eye for the main chance.

Early on, that eye falls on the beautiful Grace (Nicole Kidman), who stumbles into town in the wake of distant gunshots. Grace’s plight—she’s fleeing from gangsters—calls out to the would-be idealist, who hides her and refuses to turn her over to her pursuers even when there’s money to be made. It helps that she’s such a glamorous creature: Thomas can entertain thoughts of bedding her and pat himself on the back for his nobility at the same time. He prevails upon the townspeople to accept Grace despite the risk, and they do—and they’re ennobled in their own eyes, too. Although this pampered woman has never done manual labor, she offers to work for her keep, and the townspeople reluctantly—after much prodding, for they pride themselves on their self-sufficiency—accept. In the course of these happy days, she spends an hour at Lauren Bacall’s shop alongside Chloë Sevigny, baby-sits for Patricia Clarkson’s kids, helps Stellan Skarsgård in the apple orchard, then sits holding hands with old Ben Gazzara—the blind man who pretends to see fine and is fond of making poetic speeches about the quality of the light. At the town’s Fourth of July celebration, they toast their country and the new spirit of openness that Grace has given them. She has made Dogville feel good about itself—and what more can you ask of someone?

Even in the idyllic early sections, there’s a hint of American capitalism’s demonic pull, but the evil remains latent until the police arrive and announce that the missing Grace is wanted in connection with a string of robberies—robberies the townspeople know she didn’t do because she was hiding out with them. From a business perspective, says Thomas, Grace’s position has become more costly. “To head off any unpleasantness,” he proposes she work longer hours for less pay. There is a clinical fascination in watching the ways in which the equilibrium shifts: The best part of Dogville is its middle, in which there’s a quivering (very unsteady) balance between Grace’s romantic notions of her refuge (and her liberal—dare I say Christlike—urge to forgive all transgression) and the burgeoning resentment of the townspeople. There’s a chilling scene with a little boy (Miles Purinton) who blackmails Grace into spanking him—or he’ll tell his mother that she spanked him, which he does anyway: How do kids dream up these no-win scenarios? And the scene in which Skarsgård complains that Grace doesn’t respect him, and it’s implied that she could show her “respect” by letting him have her: Given the social and sexual inequalities, that’s all too believable.

But von Trier isn’t satisfied with letting us know that this exploitive side of human nature (and capitalism) exists and that people struggle constantly to find a balance between what they know to be right and what they think they can get by with. He wants to show us that victimization is inevitable because people (read: Americans) are essentially vile, or—in the parlance of the movie—dogs. One character says that he “doesn’t want to profit from other peoples’ misfortunes,” then goes on to extort even more money from Grace—and then to cheat her. As Dogville drags on, it turns into another protracted exercise in sadism, in which a beautiful innocent is tortured and humiliated: struck, shackled, raped, jeered, and Puritanically denounced for good measure. (It’s the hypocrisy that really rankles.) We wait for one of the characters to show a hint of empathy, but von Trier’s Dogvillians are worse than Mel Gibson’s Jews, and Grace suffers in silence, as much a martyr as the female protagonists of von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). (The outcome is different this time, although somehow even bleaker.)

There’s another creepy subtext here. Nicole Kidman is the biggest name in the movie—an international icon of wealth and celebrity. So when she offers to take part in a low-budget ensemble art film, it’s like Grace offering to do menial chores for poor people. Then we get to watch a movie star humiliated: sweet! Kidman is an elegant actress, and there’s a long overhead shot of her in an apple cart that strives for, and attains, a mythic beauty, but she doesn’t transcend her material the way Björk and Emily Watson did. She’s the mannequin they managed not to be.

The pugnacious critic Armond White, whose dudgeon in this instance seems just, points out that von Trier condescends to the artists he rips off—Dreyer in Breaking the Waves, Fellini in Dancer in the Dark, and here Thornton Wilder, whose Our Town metamorphoses into a Shirley Jackson American Gothic before our eyes. (This is a crime against both Wilder, whose play remains a vivid and moving collision of American optimism with the fact of death, and Jackson, who in her novels captures a species of inbred American repression as well as anyone.) Von Trier really gives us Yanks the big middle finger in the credit sequence, which presents photos of real American poverty, hopelessness, and desperation while David Bowie warbles the acidic “Young Americans.” That was when I gave the movie the finger right back; I wanted to throw things at the screen. I’m sure Lars von Trier would regard me the way Col. Jessup regards the lieutenant in A Few Good Men—I can’t handle the truth. But it’s more like I can’t handle selective half-truths by a preening, misanthropic bully who wouldn’t recognize an act of decency if it bit him on the ass.

On the other hand, maybe von Trier is right that we Americans are dogs: His movies seem to call to me like fire hydrants.

Correction, March 26, 2004: An earlier version of this piece stated that Lars von Trier filmed Dogville in Denmark. He filmed it in Sweden. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)