' ' Cinema Romantico: Dogville

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


So after "Birth" I was jonesing for some more Nicole Kidman (her acting! her acting!) except I was pretty much all the way up to date with her oeuvre. Well, aside from that one movie I had specifically avoided. Look, I'll be honest. I'm not a Lars von Trier fan. A'ight? Guy freaks me out. HE.FREAKS.ME.OUT. The only von Trier movie I have seen is "Breaking The Waves" (1996) and that was back when I was just beginning to wade into the deep end of real independent film and I saw that one and that was it. No more, thank you. I may have been an angsty teen then but even that version of me didn't need this sort of filmmaking in his life. So, what to do? Kidman...von Trier. Kidman...von Trier. Ah, what the hell. I Netflixed it.

The first thing I can say about "Dogville" (2003) is that Nicole Kidman is really skilled at opening and closing pretend doors. Wait, what's that you say? Oh. Of course. The pretend doors. Right. See, "Dogville" is set in the 1920's Colorado mountain community of Dogville but it is filmed entirely on a soundstage, indoors, with chalk outlines representing homes and businesses and even Moses, the town's dog. What's interesting is that most times a play is adapted for the screen one of two accusations is leveled - 1.) It was too "stagy" or 2.) It tried too hard to be a "movie". Fair enough. So what of a movie that wants to be a play? Has this ever happened? "Dogville" is like "Our Town" with a handheld camera. But we'll come back to "Our Town." Oh, will we.

One evening in Dogville the audible bark of Moses harkens the arrival of a stranger. It is Grace Mulligan (Kidman), gussied up like a gangster's moll, which is actually what she kinda is and from whom she is running. She encounters the town's resident writer, Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), who doesn't really write so much as ceaselessly talk about what he's going to write, which might just be an excuse to hear himself wax philosophically. Tom suggests Grace hide in the nearby mine. She does and so when the gangsters arrive to search for her Tom talks them away.

Tom then suggests that rather than keep running, Grace remain and hide out in Dogville. The townfolk are hesitant but decide, at Tom's urging and/or "illustration", to give her a two week trial run, wherein she will perform "manual labor" as necessary. Initially everyone gives her chores they claim don't really need doin' but Grace does them anyway and wins over the good people of Dogville. Until the authorities arrive to put up a Missing Persons poster for Grace. And then arrive again later to change the Missing Persons poster to a Wanted poster. And now the townfolk grow suspicious of her and as they grow suspicious of her they grow resentful. See, the people of Dogville are "simple folk" and they don't much care for this outsider's attitude, the way she carries herself, the way she projects such superiority, even if this projection of superiority is really just a figment of their suspicious minds. Hey, no one should go around thinking they're better than anyone else, except, of course, for the "simple folk" of Dogville thinking they're better than Grace since, damn it, they are.

Good gravy, marie. To take this role Kidman was either quite brave or plum crazy. Perhaps both? The film is three hours long (and feels like it) and the string of atrocities to which her character is subjected for about a sixty minute stretch becomes excruciating. It's like watching Elisabeth Shue go into that hotel room with the three teenage boys in "Leaving Las Vegas" over and over and it culminates with Grace attempting to escape, failing and then being fitted for a, uh, gigantic dog collar and chain attached to an iron wheel to keep her in place which leads to one of the most terrifyingly hysterical lines that you can't laugh at because it's too terrifying.

"No, no, no, don't think of this as punishment. Bill, he made the chain long enough so that you can sleep in your bed." Oh. Well, so long as he made the chain long enough so she can sleep in her bed.

The film heads for an obvious conclusion and it's not obvious just because you think it's obvious (though it is) but because von Trier presents the film with chapters and outfits each chapter with a title card that explicitly tells you what's about to happen. "Chapter 8. In which there is a meeting where the truth is told and Tom leaves (only to return later)." Von Trier has points make here and he will shove them into your face as relentlessly as he damn well pleases. I was reminded of the words of my high school speech coach: "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, and then tell 'em what you told 'em." Which, if you'll allow me to be as subtle as the film, is my way of saying "Dogville" is a whole lot of speechifying. The closing shot, in fact, reminded me of the tentpole symbolism of the closing shot of "In The Bedroom" or the standing-at-a-crossroads shot in "Castaway" (which might be my least favorite shot in cinematic history - seriously, he's standing at a crossroads - do you have cliff notes to go with my ticket?). Society has gone to the......but I don't want to spoil it.

One might argue the un-cinematic business of the soundstage is meant to elicit a feeling of universality but it felt more man-made to me, both literally and figuratively. It creates the sense of a filmmaker lording over every character and assigning them actions. I don't mind a good allegory but I prefer my allegories to be slipped into my scotch as opposed to having my mouth forced open and the allegory fed to me via a giant pill that tastes like dog poop. One piece of information trotted out again and again in regards to von Trier is that he has never visited America yet deigns to make anti-American films. Is "Dogville" anti-American? You could certainly read it that way. I suspect he might just be anti-mankind. We all live in tight-knit isolation and deep down, beneath all other layers, we are vengeful and despicable, every one of us.

I kept reflecting on a chilly October evening my sister and I spent a few years ago at the outdoor Elizabethan Stage in Ashland, Oregon for a production of "Our Town" in the midst of their town's Shakespeare Festival. The third act of that play never fails to blindside me. It's dark and really kinda brutal - the deceased Emily leaving the grave to re-visit her 12th birthday. And she says that line that resonates with me more every year: "It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another." And then she demands, actually demands, to be taken back to her grave. Dear Lord.

Anyway.....I'm getting distracted......Emily's returned to the Great Beyond and she says to Mrs. Gibbs of the people back down there on earth "They don't understand, do they?" and Mrs. Gibbs replies "No, they don't understand." But Lars von Trier, see, can't just leave it at that. No, sir. You sense him hovering above the soundstage the entire time wagging his finger and screaming, "You don't understand! Do you hear me?! Only I understand! ONLY I UNDERSTAND!"

One could say "Dogville" is the sort of film that makes a person think. And this is true. It makes me think about how I hope Kate Winslet never stars in a Lars von Trier film.

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