Life has always been “normal” in Dogville, or so the narrator (John Hurt) suggests at the start of Lars von Trier’s 2003 Palme d’Or nominee. It’s a hardscrabble little town tucked up against the Rocky Mountains, populated by salt-of-the-earth types and mild eccentrics. The town is aligned along one main axis named Elm Street (though there are no elm trees in Dogville) — on either side of which are clustered the houses of the 15 residents and their few children.
Trust Von Trier to challenge all your presumptions about small town America, circa the Great Depression. Dogville maintains the simplicity (and audacity) of a theatrical production of Our Town. Shot entirely on a soundstage with handheld cameras, the town’s architectural and geographic details are primarily chalked out in lines on the floor. A few sound effects are added, like doors opening and closing where none appear: this helps us “believe” that what is going on “behind” those nonexistent doors is private.
The pared down production underlines the film’s Brechtian alienation. Its calculated staginess distances viewer from film, as do the chapter titles that interrupt the narrative (“Chapter Six: In which Dogville bares its teeth”), an intrusive narrator, and the often wooden dialect and delivery of lines. This distancing effect refuses to let the audience to get lost in the film, demanding that we focus on the story’s details and the film’s broad philosophical musings.
The “simple” life of Dogville is interrupted by the appearance of a “beautiful fugitive” named Grace (Nicole Kidman), on the lam from some gangsters. Her relationship to said thugs isn’t immediately clear, but what is clear to the town’s young philosopher and spiritual leader, Tom Edison, Jr. (Paul Bettany), is that she needs protection from the townsfolk. At first reluctant to harbor a fugitive, they agree to let her stay when she begins to labor each day, for each Dogvillian. Grace convinces Ma Ginger (fabulous Lauren Bacall) to think of something she doesn’t “need” done but might appreciate anyway. Ma Ginger sets her to weed the wild gooseberry patch and the rest of the town follows Ma’s lead. Vera (Patricia Clarkson) has Grace babysitting and tutoring her children, Tom Edison Sr. (Philip Baker Hall) has her minding his health, Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård) sets her to work in the orchard, and Olivia (Cleo King) has her caring for her disabled daughter June (Shauna Shim).
The citizens’ “generosity” wanes when questions arise concerning Grace’s involvement with the gangsters. Law officers come to Dogville (for the first time ever, we are told), to post a “Missing Person” poster with Grace’s picture. Later, they replace it with a “Wanted” poster. As the “truth” of Grace changes in their minds, the Dogvillians demand more and more from her in order to maintain their “protection.” She must work harder and longer hours, as their avarice is manifested on the body of this “fragile beauty.” Eventually, Grace becomes the town’s “dog,” expected to submit to her own rape, exploitation, and abuse. Of course, the real “dogs” are the residents themselves, and once Grace finally admits this, her retribution is straight out of the Old Testament.
That Dogville is allegorical is clear enough, and there are numerous ways to read this. Most broadly, it is an exposé of the miseries we heap onto other human beings and the self-righteousness of which we are capable. It is also difficult not to read the final confrontation between Grace and the gangster (James Caan) as one between the Old and New Testament Gods, as they discuss vengeance versus charity and forgiveness. The film also offers itself as a critique of capitalist exploitation, insofar as the system (Dogville) demands more and more of the laborer (Grace) in order to make any claim to its “beneficence.”
By far the most common response to Dogville, particularly in the U.S., has been that the film is merely and entirely “anti-American.” Von Trier has been critical of the U.S. in interviews for years, and after his Dancer in the Dark (2000), many critics remarked on the gall of the director to make a film “about” America, that “takes place” in America, while steadfastly refusing to step foot in the country himself (he won’t fly). Though Von Trier describes Dogville as an examination of universal intolerance, his assessment has been mostly lost on U.S. critics. So much for authorial intention.
Even so, the accusation that the film is “anti-American” says less about Von Trier than it does about the American psyche. In fact, it demonstrates precisely what Alexis de Tocqueville identified back in 1835, in Democracy in America, as the “irritable patriotism of Americans.” “We” are happy to tell anyone and everyone, over and over, of the nation’s greatness, and expect (demand) that they agree with us. But heaven forbid anyone utter the least critical remark about America, or not uphold our own opinion with enough verve; we’ll bully, berate, and cajole until “agreement” is met, or belittle and scorn if not. Think of the U.S.’s response to France’s reluctance to embrace “our” unilateralism with regard to the invasion of Iraq. Freedom fries, anyone?
Admittedly, I am defending Von Trier’s film and his right to see in American culture an allegory for intolerance disguised as democracy and freedom. Dogville’s critique is made clearest in its ending credits. Here a slide show of photographs detailing the “real” miseries of American culture, past and present, appear under David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” Considering the current state of the U.S.’s international reputation and troubles at home, rather than shouting, “Anti-American!” we should take this film as an opportunity to think more critically about exactly what it is we want for today’s and tomorrow’s “young Americans.