Dogville: ‘If there is any town this world would be better without, this is it’

This film is an experience. You will have never of seen anything like this before. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Honestly, I don’t know as it is entirely up to you. However, once watching this film – which leaves issues about class, society and morality – you’ll find yourself reacting to it differently as you know you should.

Set in the fictional town of Dogville in the Depression-era America, Dogville tells the story of Grace Margaret Mulligan (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious woman running away from gangsters. Dogville is a small town with a close-knit community that Grace tries to seek refuge from with the help of Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) who tries to lead this town. Tom helps Grace to try and get accepted by the residents of Dogville by having Grace prove her worth to them.

Directed by Lars von Trier, who is well known for films such as Nymphomanic (Yes, that film) as well as Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves. Dogville is the first part in his “Land of Opportunities” trilogy which also includes Manderlay (2005) with Bryce Dallas Howard taken over Nicole Kidman’s role. Von Trier raises various issues relating to society in America.

The first thing you must know about this film is that it was shot in Sweden. It is all shot on a set…that is a stage…there are no backdrops…everything is outlined on the stage like a blueprint to a house. Confused? It looks low budget, they can’t afford to film outside, they can’t afford walls, the dog is just a sound with a box that says “dog”, this film is stripped naked almost looking like a theatre production – which coincides with the length of this film.

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It works: the lack of setting is genius from Von Trier. Once you get over the shock of how this film has been filmed. You start to appreciate the effect that it has on your viewing experience. Often in films, it is easy to get lost in the film, you are fully immersed; the lack of the setting reminds us that it is all fake, it prevents us from being fully able to align ourselves with the characters, instead we are like a higher entity – judging the town.

One particular scene in which this unique set up fully works is in a scene in which Nicole Kidman’s character is raped by Chuck. Von Trier cleverly shoots the scene where it takes place in the background, while in the foreground many of the townspeople are just going about in their day to day lives. The lack of walls forces us to feel more uncomfortable, than if the film was shot with the traditional walls. It reminds us of the dark side of privacy in society – you don’t know what really happens behind closed doors. It was the only time when watching a film that I felt dirty with myself, as I said before, the story is stripped to its basics, emphasising this scene in real life as opposed to being part of the narrative.

What is refreshing about this film and in particular Nicole Kidman’s character is that she is who she is. When you hear a film about a mysterious woman on the run from gangsters, finding refuge in a small town with the help from a man with good intentions; you assume that this woman is going to bring trouble, she is alluring, a femme fatale that is going to bring the man to self-destruction. This assumption, based on previous films as well as Grace being beautiful, dressed from a higher class compared to the poorer residents of Dogville prevents you from fully being about to like or align yourself with Grace in the beginning of the film. While Grace does bring trouble, it is brought on her due to the fear and paranoia from the villagers. Slowly, we start to think that maybe, she was telling the truth.

While Dogville is clearly led by Nicole Kidman, this film is really a story about the residents of Dogville. While we sympathised with Grace and disgusted with the treatment she receives. What is intriguing is the motives of the townspeople. Initially reluctant to welcome her to the community, Grace had to earn her way in. Once missing and wanted posters start to turn up in town, the residents don’t want trouble and against their judgment lets Grace stay but she has to help out the residents more. Slowly this turns into dehumanising slavery. The women are jealous of Grace, are quick to turn on her. The men who initially were kind and respectful, quickly turn vulgar as they have raped her – with the other residents being aware and not doing anything. The ultimate act of humiliation is when Grace is chained to a heavy wheel. Some of the residents believe that they are doing the right thing, saying “We didn’t want to do this” This film not only delves into American society but the psychology behind the characters that are a result of society and history.

Most of the residents don’t receive much character development. The only resident that does is Tom Edison Jr. He is the audience’s voyeur to the town of Dogville. He is a good-natured guy who is trying to keep the community together and helps Grace (even if it was for his own agenda). You can’t help but root for him and everything he does, he has good intentions. However, what soon becomes evident is that he isn’t a man of conflict as he tries to find compromises, but is unable to stand up when it becomes clear that the residents are crossing a line. While we side with Grace, we still hope that he will help and protect her.

Ultimately, this film is polarising. You might love it; you might hate it. This film is 1 hour too long and at times you’ll be wondering what direction it is heading. Nevertheless, you should watch it. You might end up thinking at the end that you wasted 3 hours of your life but you won’t deny that the film was interesting and that all is down to Von Trier’s decision to use a stage.

Dogville
Director: Lars von Trier
Scriptwriter: Lars von Trier
Starring: Nicole Kidman; Lauren Bacall; Chloë Sevigny; Paul Bettany; Stellan Skarsgård; Udo Kier; Ben Gazzara; James Caan; Patricia Clarkson; John Hurt
Released: 2003
Running Time: 178 minutes (2 hours 58 minutes)

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