Once Upon a Time in Amerika

Living with Dogville

Presented in nine chapters and a prologue, all set to the grandfatherly drawl of John Hurt's storybook narration, Lars von Trier's Dogville is a postmodern morality play stripped nearly bare by its precocious creator, until only its boldness, cutting insight, intermittent hilarity and bracing violence remain. It is also, not unlike a certain recent blockbuster, a potent parable of human suffering, the contagion of fear and how loath we truly are to love thy neighbor, unfolding amidst the Great Depression in a fictitious Rocky Mountain town nestled somewhere near the intersection of Bertolt Brecht Avenue and High Noon Way. A town, we're told, where "good, honest folk" trudge forth through "wicked times."

Just how wicked is something Trier holds close to the vest until we are well immersed in Dogville's sprawling three-hour canvas. First, though, some introductions are in order. Say hello to shopkeepers Gloria (Harriet Andersson) and Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), whose highway-robbery prices take advantage of the fact that Dogville is—or was—a company town; to family farmer Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård), his wife, Vera (Patricia Clarkson), and their brood of towheaded youngsters; to retired physician Tom Edison Sr. (Philip Baker Hall); and to Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), an aspiring author who has managed, to date, to set only two words to paper.

Failing the appearance of his muse, Tom, in Dogville's opening scenes, sets about another, no less inventive, task—that of leading a series of town meetings focused on the subject of "moral rearmament." He seeks to illustrate "the human problem: to receive," and, sooner rather than later, a prime opportunity falls right into his lap. When an eruption of gunfire somewhere on the outskirts of Dogville heralds the arrival of a beautiful fugitive, not coincidentally named Grace (Nicole Kidman), it's Tom who talks Dogville's proud River City types into protecting the poor girl from a bunch of shadowy gangsters in dark-tinted Cadillacs. Really, he suggests, they ought to give Grace a try.

Thus things proceed for a good long while, with Grace gradually becoming an indispensable part of the Dogville economy, tending to all sorts of tasks—baby-sitting, tutoring, visiting a reclusive bachelor (Ben Gazzara) too proud to admit he's blind—which somehow, prior to her arrival, never needed tending to. But it is not so very long before she starts to see her adopted town in a new light, one that casts its rays upon the hearts and minds of the denizens of Dogville, illuminating every flaw. And it is not so very much later that Grace comes to understand the full meaning of Chuck's ominous warning: "People are animals. Feed 'em enough and they'll eat till their bellies burst."

In a series of developments that will hardly surprise those who've followed Trier's recent work, the film goes on to chart Grace's exploitation by the residents of Dogville—how she becomes a convenient scapegoat for their own moral shortcomings and a receptacle for their deep-seated bitterness toward one another. Similar fates, you may recall, befell Emily Watson's Bess in Breaking the Waves and Björk's Selma in Dancer in the Dark. But if those characters suggested a distinctly Bressonian exploration of the self-sacrificing innocent, Dogville's ivory-skinned, quietly aristocratic Grace seems less disposed to such immolations. And when you further consider that Trier has shot Dogville on a nearly naked sound stage constructed especially for the occasion, with the entire town outlined in chalk on the floor and just a few props roughed in for effect, you begin to see just how radical this movie really is. Radical, I should add, not so much in the sense of breaking new ground, for in addition to the influence of Brecht (and, in particular, the "Pirate Jenny" ballad from The Threepenny Opera), Dogville certainly owes something to the work of a long line of theater-cinema hybridists, from Jean Cocteau to Jean-Marie Straub. Rather, the film's revolutionary spirit derives from its effort—the culmination of something Trier has been building toward since he first drew up the infamous Dogme 95 manifesto—to reclaim a kind of pure cinema that has become largely obfuscated in an age that sees so much filmmaking "craft" available at the touch of a button. Which is to say, a cinema capable of stirring in us the greatest and most tremulous of human emotions, and a searching sense of our own foibles and shortcomings.

And here's where we come to the thing that has really rubbed some folks the wrong way about Dogville, ever since it premiered at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival: that the film is set in America, that it purports to have something to say about this country, and that the notoriously travel-phobic Trier has had the gall to do this without ever once setting foot on "our" soil. Worse yet, Dogville is but the first in a planned trilogy called "USA—Land of Opportunities," the next installment of which, Manderlay, will reportedly follow the character of Grace to a small Southern town where slavery is still a living institution.

But the perception of Dogville as armchair anti-Americanism, stems from a fundamental misreading of the film—one that allies Trier with abused victim Grace, when it's clear that his actual alter ego resides in demiurge Tom, positioned, like the ethereal Stage Manager from Wilder's Our Town, at once inside the action and somehow outside it, trotting Dogville's perilous high wire between intellectual curiosity and intellectual arrogance. A good way into the film, Tom reveals to Grace that he has finally completed the first chapter of a story, about a woman like her and a town like Dogville. He asks her to suggest a title. "Why not just call it Dogville?" she replies. "No," he says. "It's got to be universal. A lot of writers make that mistake." And so it is that Trier's Dogville, set in a country he knows only from movies and television, becomes a cautionary, confessional fable for all men in all seasons who would pursue art at the expense of compassion.

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