In a recent interview with Empire Online, Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier had this to say to a question about what’s next on his agenda, as far as directing goes:
“Absolutely nothing! I have a garden with vegetables, and that’s what I’m working on, new potatoes and lettuce and all kinds of nice things.”
The simplicity and golly-gee-ness of that response was such a stark left-turn from the rest of the interview that I immediately thought, “I kinda love this guy.” Throughout the preceding portion of the Q&A, Von Trier trudged to the interrogation’s finish line in a sludge of bleakness and morbidity. He was discussing his latest piece of thought-conjuring, controversial filmmaking, Antichrist, a personal and artistic dabble into full-on rip-your-senses-apart horror that’s high on my Must See list. Mainly because the response the film received out at the Cannes Film Festival was so alarmingly vitriolic that it transcended mere written word; the reviews read like tangible attacks. Critics bludgeoned by esoteric brutality and grotesque psychoanalysis, that, as the consensus dictated, felt like it should’ve remained in Von Trier’s own head. Which is to say, precisely the kind of film that I love.
I’ve known of Von Trier’s dividing artistry for some time now, but his films have always been mainstays on my to-do list, without ever undoing the safety and firing them into the DVD player. Shit, I even had his beloved Dancer in the Dark chilling in my DVR backlog for four months before I moved out and lost that cable-box. It’s not that the long running-time’s of his films intimidated me; his films address heavy topics and favor patience over wam-bam. The type of cinema that requires a particular headspace from its viewer. But with Antichrist around the corner (it’s playing at the upcoming New York Film Festival, and opens in limited release at the IFC Center closer to Halloween), I’ve decided that its officially time to run through his filmography. The main attraction being that his style captures the dread of good horror while covering human interest drama, with a lo-fi digital look.
First on the list was Dogville, Von Trier’s 2003 English language debut. Many critics and film-heads consider Dogville to be his best work, and the promise of a show-stopping finale with homicidal tendencies held my intrigue in strong grasp since I flipped through the film’s reviews a couple of weeks back. A few minutes shy of three hours in length, Dogville was certain to be a taxing watch, so don’t ask why I opted to start it at 11:30pm on a weeknight; sleep is overrated. Not to mention, I was already tired going into the flick, and there was no doubt that it’d be slow-moving and cerebral. Exactly what you want from something seven hours before you’re supposed to wake up for work.
To the film’s immense credit, I never even noticed what time it was, nor did I care. Dogville is so uniquely puzzling that I could’ve sat mesmerized by its quietness for hours more. This is a film meant to be seen in a group, to inspire long debate about the anti-American ideas that Von Trier so delicately conveys. Yet another piece of evidence for the necessity of my very own Matt’s Movie Club——I’m all alone in this land of Dogville interpretation, thus forced to decipher a complicated post-game mindframe.
Set in 1930s America, Dogville stars Nicole Kidman as “Grace,” a mysterious woman who stumbles into the titular mountain town. She’s just evaded gunfire let off by gangsters that have an unknown-to-the-townsfolk-and-audience bone to pick with her, and she’s now hiding out in Dogville. The only reason Grace is even granted the possibility of protection is that good-natured “Tom” (played by Paul Bettany), the town’s de facto leader, feels sympathy—-and physical attraction—for her. The residents of Dogville have no intention to let Grace coast, though, so she’s subjected to intense manual labor that gradually turns into slave-work. And then she’s exploited sexually by several of the men. A harmless pillow of a woman, Grace only wishes to be treated like every other person, but she’s an outsider. The 15 citizens of Dogville (it’s that small of a town) show little compassion, ultimately, making the concluding comeuppance issued by Grace all the more justifiable. Foul acts breed more foul acts. The only way to fairly reciprocate evil is to make evil pay the piper.
Von Trier approaches this material with such a fascinating hand. A narrator (John Hurt) carries you through the plot’s intricacies, and the narrative is structured as nine chapters (not including a prologue). The entire film looks and feels like one long dress rehearsal. There’s no physical set other than sparse doors and a few chairs. The town, which is actually just a big soundstage, is an open terrain. Actors are seen on screen going about their characters’ everyday rituals even when they’re not part of the specific scene’s progression. When non-existent doors open, the actors pantomime the doorknob-turning as off-camera sounds are heard. Dogville is the most elaborate play ever conceived.
This is the work of a hugely-confident filmmaker, a guy so invested in the quality of his storytelling and the handling of his actors that he strips the film of all distractions. You’re left with only the dialogue and performances, and all are slam-dunks. Particularly Kidman, who reminds you here that she’s something special, even if her recent output has been far from memorable.
Where Dogville really succeeds is in its final chapter. A firestorm of violence, machine-gun spray, and fatalities that’s all implication. Pretty much what you’d see at a Civil War battle reenactment. The death and destruction that Grace brings forth upon the town that’s desecrated her is all the more devastating because it comes from a place of heartbroken vengeance. She’s not a blood-shedder by nature, so the revenge she dishes out troubles her deeply. But it’s necessary; without such payback, those closest to her will consider her as inhumane. Eye for an eye. Get what you deserve.
Von Trier is a known button-pusher, and Dogville is his way of chastising America in undercover ways. Whether you agree with his stance or not here, there’s no denying that Von Trier’s notion of the ‘outsider as vulnerable outcast’ isn’t rooted in some truth. Replace the character of Grace with any one of America’s immigrant groups throughout history and the parallel is, at the least, worth inspection. “Tom” is representative of the country’s liberal faction, but even he/liberals resort(s) to foulness when met with esteem-crushing resistance. Most curious, however, is the connection I made between the film’s vengeful closing violence and anti-American terrorism. In a terrorist’s eyes, he/she is wreaking tragic havoc as a response to the enemy’s own wrongdoing. This is where Dogville really pissed the critic-world off, I’d imagine, and I can’t blame them for being angry. It’s a ballsy line for Von Trier to draw, but—-even though I don’t fully agree with what I’m seeing as his opinion—-that’s the beauty of cinema: freedom of expression.
It doesn’t seem likely that Antichrist will raise this caliber of touchy questioning. More like, repulsion and nightmarish bewilderment. And for that I’ll probably prefer that one over Dogville. Just the sick-fuck within me, baby. Still, Dogville is worthy of your attention, simply for the fact that Von Trier was able to so successfully merge his to-the-last-detail sensibilities with powerful social commentary.