Rightwing Film Geek

Dogville: A hell of a movie

This was written back in 2004 for a friends’ webzine, which is now defunct. It is honestly one of the pieces of film criticism of which I’m proudest and for one of my very favorite contemporary films. And there are spoilers aplenty for the whole movie.

DOGVILLE (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2004) 10

The Gospel of St. Matthew has the following passage (11:20-24):

Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein were done the most of his miracles, for that they had not done penance. ‘Woe thee, Corozain, woe to thee, Bethsaida: for if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you. And thou Capharnaum, shalt thou be exalted up to heaven? Thou shalt go down even unto hell. For if in Sodom had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in thee, perhaps it had remained unto this day. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for thee’.

Lars Von Trier’s DOGVILLE is about that passage. And it is not subtle – Nicole Kidman’s character is named Grace. And Grace is rejected by the town. And the rejection of Grace brings damnation.

DOGVILLE was widely derided by the U.S. press at the Cannes festival in May on very different and more-prosaic grounds – as an anti-American rant by an ignorant European who had never been here. Todd McCarthy closed his Variety review by saying that “Von Trier indicts as being unfit to inhabit the earth a country that has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people onto its shores than any other in the history of the world. Go figure.” You don’t necessarily have to have read the press book (though McCarthy and others did quote Von Trier from it liberally) to come to that conclusion. The vast 175-minute body of the film portrays the reaction of the residents of Dogville to the arrival of the stranger from Nowhere, and her involvement and eventual estrangement from the town. It’s easy to see how the usual suspects would interpret this in all sorts of ways about how mean we are to immigrants (it’s why they’re beating down the doors to get in – “please oppress us.”)

I submit that DOGVILLE makes more sense and is meatier when seen as a religious film rather than a political one, the unfortunately crude and literal closing credits notwithstanding. But as a religious work of art, DOGVILLE is a rare breed today – unapologetically moralistic, and displaying and justifying the most unpopular Christian doctrine of all – Hell.

Von Trier may be his own worst enemy in inviting people to see the film as a political manifesto, saying among other things, to McCarthy’s gleeful citation that “I don’t see (Americans) as less evil than the bandit states.” But the anti-American Americans (think Noam Chomsky or Susan Sontag) who might be expected to lap up this film will see an uncomfortable portrait of themselves in the character of Tom Edison, played by Paul Bettany as a man who conceives of himself as apart from the rest of the town in his relationship to Grace, as if he’s the judge and assessor of the town’s virtues and vices. He proves not to be quite so worthy as to cast the first stone.

Unfortunately (or maybe “propitiously”), DOGVILLE’s central stylistic trope, its being performed on an “Our Town”-style stage where chalk outlines define the houses and streets and there are only a few props, makes it too unspecific to be convincing as a national portrait. DANCER IN THE DARK (2000) had the same “problem” – while clearly and specifically set in the United States, it really belonged in the world of movie melodramas and worked like gangbusters as a weepie. Looking at DANCER for a political critique would be like watching TOP HAT for information about Venice, rather than for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing. In the same way, the main body of DOGVILLE is so stylized, not so much general and unspecific as defiantly anti-specific (it literally screams “artificial set” at every instant), that it’s impossible to take seriously in realistic terms as social criticism. John Hurt’s narration has a Masterpiece Theater British-literary formality that is totally alien to any portrait of America. The film’s only credited score uses Antonio Vivaldi’s “Nisi Dominus,” which, apart from the anti-realistic anachronism, is also the Latin Vulgate name for Psalm 126. The title means “unless the Lord” and the Psalm opens “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it; Unless the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain that keepeth it.” And Dogville is about a city that the Lord didn’t keep. Or rather, it didn’t keep the Lord.

The film specifically sets itself up as having a God-like point-of-view and hammers that home 50 ways to Sunday. The title cards are providential, telling the viewer what will happen before it does: “Tom hears gunfire and meets Grace”; “Grace indulges in a shady piece of provocation.” The opening shot is literally a God-like POV: it descends from a height and looks down upon the town and its chalk outlines. Von Trier repeats that shot at other times for emphasis – such as when Grace hides in an apple truck to flee the town. Not only does Hurt play an omniscient narrator, but his vocal reciting is God-like as well – avuncular, out-of-time and -place, objective, and absolutely serene and knowing. The wall-less, roof-less sets mean that everything is visible at all times (an especially important device for framing the first rape of Grace). “The eyes of God see all,” as the Woody Allen of CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS might put it. Even the attempts to cover up and hide can’t escape God’s penetrating glance – again the apple-cart shot, when Grace pulls a tarp over herself. But we from above still see her, the tarp only as opaque as a nylon stocking.

If Grace is her name in a stylized, unspecific world overseen by a providential God-like narrator, then She becomes a theological signifier – of grace, an eternally suffering servant – and thus of Christ. And what are the consequences of rejecting the saving grace of Christ, as the townspeople reject Grace? Damnation, according to every Christian denomination that claims such a thing is possible and knowable, including Von Trier’s Catholic Church. The relevant scene is near the end (or The End, as it were) between Grace and her father, played by James Caan, who has come to rescue her from the abuse she has been suffering at the hands of the townspeople. Grace begins the conversation wanting to save them, but the father talks her out of it on the basis of the necessity for judgment. It’s not that we have to stand on one side or the other, it’s more that because both Father and Son are part of the same Godhead, both justice and mercy have to come on the same side, otherwise you have gangsterism (the Father alone) or victimology (the Son alone).

This scene could not be more clearly coded as theology and as the logical moral result of the first 160 minutes – it’s the Christ-figure’s father bringing an end to the providential narrative and doing so by having Her judge all according to how they treated Her. Von Trier is nothing if not explicit. That’s why it’s essential that when Grace destroys the town, she recites back at a character some lines about her children before she actually kills them, rhyming with Jesus’ saying what he’d say to those he’d cast to Hell. Is murdering children in front of their mother hellish? Sure, but that’s why the rejection of God’s Grace is called “Hell.” Jesus could not have been more explicit in the New Testament about this being what He will do on Judgment Day – judge all according to how they have treated Him. The key lines from Caan are that “people’s best isn’t good enough” (salvifically-speaking, this is what Christianity has always taught about the Kingdom of Heaven; it’s nothing we can just achieve through work). And the Father says that even a dog won’t learn if all you do is forgive, and that it is demeaning and infantilizing not to hold people accountable. Since all the townspeople are shown as unrepentant sinners, and continually reject and spit on Grace, they choose their own damnation. These people are merely reaping what they sowed; they have damned themselves. And that’s more or less what happens at the end – everyone is murdered by the father’s hitmen/angels and the town is even symbolically burned down (fire, flames… Hell. As I say, Von Trier is not subtle.)

What DOGVILLE represents in Von Trier’s overall oeuvre is the flip side of his “Golden-Heart” trilogy. In BREAKING THE WAVES (1996), THE IDIOTS (1998) and DANCER IN THE DARK, whatever their differences, his heroines were Christ-figures who went through a kind of hell, the tortures of the damned. The primary difference in the narrative among the three earlier films rests on what Bess, Selma and Karen achieve from being put through the wringer – Resurrection and Exaltation (WAVES); self-sacrifice for family (DANCER); and not much, a redundant kind of self-knowledge at best (IDIOTS). This recurrent theme of female victimhood has been one of the main critical raps on Von Trier for the past decade, that he basically “gets off on suffering chicks”. Or as McCarthy put it: “Whereas von Trier in his recent ‘Golden-Heart’ trilogy has led his heroines through an earthly hell to achieve a state of grace, he is determined to have his central character here show no mercy when it comes to punishing her tormentors. Grace is given the position of an all-powerful god, dispensing a Sodom and Gomorrah-like judgment on those among whom she formerly dwelled.”

I’m becoming more firmly convinced that Von Trier made DOGVILLE as an answer to those charges of sexism: “Oh … you don’t like characters who suffer nobly to the end. Well, here’s the alternative.” No longer is the Von Trier female heroine a Suffering Servant; now she turns from all-forgiving Christ-figure to avenging angel when she realizes that forgiveness without judgment is indulgence and infantilizing. One of the reasons DOGVILLE can only end as it does, and which many people will and do hate it for but which is precisely the reason the film is so gloriously out-of-step theologically, is because the whole first 160 minutes shows how deeply problematic is a doctrine of unlimited, ever-patient grace, a Son with no Father, a salvation with no damnation. The shallowest, but most-popular way in Our Very Enlightened Time of understanding the New Testament (Jesus as all-‘luvving’), causes enormous problems with DOGVILLE: “How could a Christ-figure turn vengeful?” If you felt any ambivalence toward Grace in the main flow of the story, any part of you saying “stop being such a patsy,” then there has to be sort of hell at the end. Otherwise, she’s just an object of pity.

The end of DOGVILLE and the “turn” in Grace’s character shouldn’t trouble anyone with a firm grasp of the Bible, Christian theology and Christian history. Or rather it should not trouble him any more than Christianity itself does. Even viewing the Bible as secular literature shows the impossibility of a radical dichotomy, such as McCarthy makes (he also accuses DOGVILLE of reflecting “his new Old Testament view of the world”). There’s certainly differing rhetorical weights, but both elements, justice and forgiveness, are in both testaments. The moral task DOGVILLE calls forth from the viewer is to be able to conceive of both justice and forgiveness, desert and grace, in terms that don’t require them to contradict, as the popular Old Testament/New Testament, Christ/avenging-angel dichotomies must.

But the puckish Von Trier can’t resist for a walk-off a theological in-joke that becomes funnier the more you’ve been following the Catholic Church’s inter-religious dialogue under John Paul II. There’s one loose end at DOGVILLE’s Apocalypse – the dog, a Rottweiler. It’s subtly named “Moses” and after the town has been destroyed, Moses is the only survivor. The camera takes the God-like overhead POV and pulls back as Moses barks. Hurt’s voice-of-God narration tells the viewer that he may have been asking himself what happened to Moses. “That will not be answered here.”

April 8, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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