Björk hated him, Nicole Kidman reportedly had a tough time working with him - it appears Lars von Trier is an eccentric whose behaviour on and off set is an unpredictable, malicious and somewhat ambitious one. And yet, he is just constantly full of depressing ideas and themes for us all to watch and be saddened by. He claims a lot of his films have happy endings. I have so far seen five of his films and let me tell you now that they are no easy, breezy walk in the park. He also seems to have a knack for selecting great lead actresses. After all, his films are all based around complicated, good-natured women who are surrounded by unimaginable supporting characters and disturbing atmosphere, slowly being driven to degradation and descent. Björk (Dancer in the Dark), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist), and most recently Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia) all won the prestigious Best Actress trophy at the Cannes Film Festival by working with von Trier, and a healthy pattern such as this one is not easy to produce.
So for someone who directs his leading actresses so well, "Dogville" is most certainly one of his best, most intriguing works to date. The themes remain familiar - it's about a woman who comes under tremendous pressure from her surroundings. We are introduced to Grace (Kidman), a woman with a mysterious past and emotional baggage who stumbles upon a small American village. The residents there appear friendly enough when she passes by, but it's a whole different story as she tries to integrate herself into their small, well-built, tight society. They are not fond of change, and a random inclusion of an obvious outsider doesn't sit too comfortably with some of the village people. Especially when it is revealed that Grace is somehow wanted by gun-wielding gangsters. Her presence poses danger - but thanks to the helpful Tom (Paul Beattany) who instantly has some sort of protective and emotional feelings towards the modest lady, she is allowed to stay in return for doing chores for the villagers, which she does happily. After all, she is running away from something that sounds quite violent and dodgy, the least she can do is to participate in the community.
From the opening sequence it becomes painfully apparent that "Dogville" is one risky picture from a director who has the well-deserved reputation of being the "enfant terrible" of European Cinema. Split into nine long chapters including a prologue, the film sums up in just under three hours, in which the ever-so fragile and pale looking Kidman goes through all sorts of horrible ordeals, just for wanting to fit in. As if the film is set on stage, von Trier takes a bold move in hardly including any erect set pieces. So no doors, no street marks, no grass, just a lamp post and a few scattered walls to signal the presence of houses. The opening of doors, acted out by all the actors, with sound perfectly matched to the film's action, it feels like we're watching a play, and a darkly bleak one at that as well. The stage is painted with black, white, grey and the occasional brown, being set in an abandoned silver mine, the colour choices seem sensible, and we know that despite Grace's best efforts, her happy days among this grim looking village will not last long.
Where does it all go wrong for Grace? It starts to go downhill as everyone begins to realise what the cost of hiding Grace will be. The police are constantly putting up flyers with her face and name on them, and they are being insistent that she is a dangerous. They feel she should do more work. She complies. But she's human and she is capable of making mistakes. Even the tiniest mistakes don't sit well with the already highly tense and alert group of people. Tension rises. Sexually frustrated men start making advances on the poor, helpless woman. Can Grace fight off a butch man? Hardly. She gives in, and is given the cold shoulder from the women of the village. The men only view her as a sexual object. What a downfall - to go from a cleaner one day to a serially raped victim who has no one to turn to. And von Trier still won't admit this is a depressing film.
Just what is Grace hiding? After a while, it ceases to matter, as we are all so caught up in the spiraling drama she finds herself in. Within minutes she is the most hated person in the village, and at one point in the film, she finds herself in shackles. She tried to run away, you see. Even the characters who showed faith and sympathy towards Grace, as the film progresses, turn into enemies. But this change is never forced, which is something von Trier excels in. Nothing feels unnatural or too contrived. His storytelling skills, although it takes a while, is a deep and enriching experience to fully soak up, as we can examine the slow development of relationships that Grace forms with the residents of Dogville. Human connection is not built on seconds but days, weeks and months. And this is shown with restraint and von Trier is not afraid to take his time with drawing as many engaging sub-plots as he can.
And what a fascinating cast he managed to end up with. Kidman, whose weak, tired presence alone shrieks the word "victim," is further able to effectively stir up sympathy without being an overly dumb or naïve stereotype. But it's also the frightening supporting turns who brew the uneasy ambiance of Dogville. Lauren Bacall, playing the role of Ma Ginger, a local shopkeeper who seems to be a nice old lady with a big heart, shows that she is made of steel if needs be. Patricia Clarkson, a reserved-looking friendly neighbour has a dark and vengeful side who participates in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film. Stellan Skarsgard, playing Clarkson's husband, is one of the many men who pushes himself onto Grace. His sleazy, creepy performance has an unpredictable twist that adds more horror to Dogville. Beattny, who starts off as a friend of Grace, is the voice and persuader of Dogville. He sways the people's emotions, so if you cross him, which Grace of course does (not in a vindictive way of course - there is a series of misunderstandings, painful miscommunication and a blow to his ego), the consequences will be severe.
Despite its hefty running time, "Dogville" is filled with moments to treasure. It's a true success in experimental film making with all of von Trier's gambles paying off perfectly. The loud, violent crescendo of the final act will bring about all sorts of conflicting emotions, ranging from relief, horror, sadness and possibly guilt. It's a challenging watch, but an immensely rewarding one, with a stunning cast who sadly went unappreciated in many awards, directed by a man whose often controversial, odd remarks have put people off even before they sit down to watch one of his films. "Doville" is a unique and powerful film that looks at a community's dynamic in the most brutal and uncomfortable way - and yes, it's not pleasant to see so many human beings portrayed like monsters on screen. But then again, if enough people come together and a deep dark crisis hits, who wouldn't show a hint of selfish survival instinct in desperate situations? It's a cynical view of course, but that's what von Trier is all about; digging out the cynics inside us all, portraying the world in the most negative, but oddly plausible light.
Dogville is a pretty good film however its main drawback is that it is too long as it is over two hours in length and the plot does not justify that amount of time spent on it in my opinion.
Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a young woman who is on the run from a gang of criminals and she arrives in the small town of Dogsville in a remote area of Colorado. Paul Bettany plays Tom Edison a local writer who has strong opinions about how people should conduct themselves even if some of the other towns people do not always agree with him he does have some influence. They all agree to let Grace stay, not being aware of her reason for fleeing the mob, and after a while they begin to accept her into the community however danger is never far away. The whole film is narrated by William Hurt even though he has no on screen time.
This is a rather strange film that has artsy pretentions that certainly take a bit of getting used to, it sort of feels like you are watching a bit of theatre in the way the town is depicted and the actors perform, the abscence of scenery or buildings is stark and strange to get used to.
On the plus side both Bettany and Kidman are excellent with two really powerful performances. Their on screen chemistry is convincing as a romance begins to emerge between the two.
As I said earlier the weakness in the film is the relatively slow pace at which it moves along and I do feel that losing a good thirty minutes would have been possible and would not detract from the quality of the product. Worth a viewing but I would not recommend parting with any money to see it.
Tom Edison Jr lives in a town called Dogville. He is a writer and has strong ideas of how the townspeople should behave, although they often rebel against his ideas. Then Grace appears, on the run from gangsters, and in need of a place to hide. Although the townspeople are initially not in agreement, Tom invites her to stay in Dogville and persudades the others that she should be allowed to stay for two weeks, and possibly longer if she fits in. She tries to help the townspeople with chores and eventually they let her, and start to accept her. Nevertheless, she has a secret and, when a search party comes to town looking for her, things begin to change Dogville. The townspeople believe she is innocent, but her safe stay must come with a price. What is Grace's secret? Will she be allowed to stay in Dogville? Will she and Tom end up together?
I watched this film with some trepidation. It is the first film of a trilogy, of which I have seen the second film, Manderlay, and hated it. However, I have liked some of director Lars Von Trier's other work, and, having heard that the first film was much better, I was willing to give it a try. Initally, my opinion was not good. One thing I disliked about Manderlay was the odd setting - Dogville is filmed inside a huge building that is set up like a stage in a theatre. There are no walls or doors, just lines delineating where everyone's house is, and it takes some getting used to. One of the things I love most about film is the whole visual experience, but here, the setting is dull, the clothes are dark and drab and there is very little to encourage the viewer to continue watching.
The story is narrated by John Hurt, who is never seen on screen, with appearances by the actors filling in the detail that is missing from the narration. In fact, it is in the dialogue between the actors that the story is told - this is a film that can be largely understood by listening, rather than watching. It is even divided up into chapters, just like a play or book would be. It would actually have made an ideal radio play - in many ways the visual side of the film is an unnecessary distraction. I have never seen a film about which I could say this, with the possible exception of Manderlay, and it left me feeling rather confused. This is not to say that the actors gave poor performances, because they didn't, but their skills are shown in their voices rather than their actions.
Both Paul Bettany and Nicole Kidman are good in their roles, although, as I say, the visual side is relatively unimportant - it is in the way that they deliver their lines that they succeed. Paul Bettany's character, Tom, is slightly annoying in that he thinks he knows what is best for the town, although there is no evidence as to why he should think this way. It is probably deliberate that Lars Von Trier has a similar character in Manderlay - I suppose this is what links the films together. Bettany plays the role well though and Tom's burgeoning relationship with Grace is the one thing that does need to be seen visually to take it in properly. Their on-screen chemistry was good, and the fact that they looked good together didn't do them any harm.
Nicole Kidman's Grace is rather a strange mixture, primarily because she is supposed to be deliberately mysterious. On the one hand, she seems very kind and very grateful for the treatment she receives from the townspeople. On the other hand, she seems to be holding back on something and there is a strong feeling that she is slightly resentful of her situation. Again, much of this is in her voice, rather than her actions, so although she is good, she may just as well be listened to on the radio. Then again, she does look so innocent and pretty that she will please a lot of people, especially male viewers. There are a few other familiar faces - Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Chloe Sevigny and Stellan Skargard in particular, although their roles are small and relatively unimportant.
There has been much discussion about the meaning of Dogville. It is obvious from the start that Lars Von Trier is trying to tell us something, although different people will have different ideas. He has been criticised for the anti-American stance that he takes, and many presume that is what he is trying to say here - presumably criticising American society for its hypocrisy and inability to see what is potentially evil unless it is spelled out to them. I didn't particularly feel that there was anything anti-American about it - if directed at a particular group of people, it could just as easily be any Western country's people. However, there does seem to be a suggestion (and I say this mainly because I've seen Manderlay as well) that those with money and power (Tom's family is better off than the other families in Dogsville) tend to think they know how to lead other people, but this isn't necessarily the case. Read into it what you will.
The story itself is an intriguing one and is definitely an improvement over Manderlay. Grace's presence in the town definitely stirs up a lot of feeling and it is interesting to see how everyone reacts to her. The first part of the film (the first four chapters) is quite slow and may well put some people off, but things do really begin to hot up after that. When Grace's true self is finally revealed, it would be a surprise to anyone who hasn't already seen Manderlay - and even though I already knew part of it, it was still good to know how everything fitted together. In a way, though, the knowledge that there was a hidden meaning behind it all ruined it a little for me - it felt as though Von Trier was trying just a little bit too hard and it ended up seeming a little pretentious.
The extras include a featurette of interviews from the main cast members and some of the production crew. There's a particularly obnoxious child actor that's worth looking out for if you want to be annoyed. Many of the rest of the interviews are a bit silly - they seem to have been asked to try and be funny, but they just end up being pointless. Certainly, it didn't teach me anything. Later on, the interviews seem to be a deliberate attempt to brown-nose Lars Von Trier! There is also a feature on the Cannes Film Festival, when the film was first shown there. This is largely in Danish, so most people will need the subtitles. It's interesting if you're into film festivals and all the hype. Finally, there's a trailer.
I watched this in the hope that it would be better than Manderlay, and I think that overall it was. Certainly, the story is better and I preferred Nicole Kidman to Bryce Dallas Howard. However, ultimately, I watch a film because I want to be visually as well as aurally entertained and there was very little visual entertainment here. It is also too preachy at times, plus it is way too long at well over 2 hours. I'm glad I gave it a go, but I have no intention of bothering with the third film in the trilogy - Wasington. If you like Von Trier's work, or like films that are a little bit different to the norm, by all means, give it a go - it certainly has a high rating on imdb.com. Otherwise, I'd recommend leaving it. Three stars out of five.
The DVD is available from play.com for £5.93.
Classification: 15 (for some scenes of a sexual nature)
Running time: 178 minutes
Dogville was written and directed by Lars von Trier, with a budget of $10 million and released in 2003. It is the first film in the trilogy 'Land of Opportunities'; followed by Manderlay (2005) and Wasington (2009). The film is a parable that is outlined in a prologue and nine chapters narrated by John Hurt. Set in the 1930s during the Depression in the Rocky Mountains it tells the story of Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman). She is on the run from mobsters and appeals for refuge in the tiny rural town that is Dogville. This is provided in return for Grace proving 'assistance' to the town's residents to thank them for their hospitality. This starts off innocently with the residents taking a lead from Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) who is a philosopher and would be writer who wishes to encourage them to be unselfish and open to helping another in an altruistic manner. As time goes on Dogville shows its true form and the results are disturbing and brutal. The film culminates in Grace having the 'hand of God' in deciding the fate of the town.
The film is shot in an unusual minimalistic way. The town's seven households, public building and landmarks are outlined by white chalk on a black floor. I initially found this staging offputting; it isn't what you would expect. It gave me the impression of a play and on reflection I can acknowledge that this style encouraged me to focus on the actors' performances and the message embedded in the script. Lighting is cleverly used to add to the mood and draws you into the atmosphere of the town. On reading about this type of setting I saw a comment highlighting the influence of the theatre of Bertolt Brecht who I had never heard of. Intrigued I looked to find out more. Brecht was a German playwright whom first used the theatre to convey a political message. He used the stage to convey various social ills with the aim of the audience leaving with the inspiration to effect change.
The staging of Dogville reminds us of the artificiality of the film (that it is merely a representation of reality) and hence it has a changeable nature. Things could be different. I find this brilliant and powerful. Dogville is dark and paints an unnerving picture of life in a small community far removed from the idealism of the 'American Dream'.
This film unsettled me and I found it hard to sleep the night after I watched it. It made me think about human nature. Parts have a concerning ring of truth. It highlighted the ability of people to move the boundaries of acceptability when falling in line with others within a group. The 'Lord of the Flies' comes to mind. Nobody likes to think they might be capable of terrible things, yet history tells us through a multitude of acts of genocide and torture that the ability lies within all of us. In fact, it made me think about the strength of character required in some cases to choose the right path.
For me this film wasn't one, which I enjoyed at all. Yet, it was thoroughly compelling and I am glad I watched it. This is not lighthearted entertainment. However if you approach it with an open mind, it provides much to contemplate. In addition, the performances of Nicole Kidman and Paul Bettany were exceptional and it has made me appreciate Kidman's versatility.
With his Nicholson-like glintn grin and devilish sense of humour, Lars Von Trier here embraces his reputation as global cinemas enfant terrible. A hard-edged picture, Dogville says Screw you to anyone who deemed Dancer In The Dark or Breaking The Waves misogynistic. You think THAT was abusive to women? he seems to be saying. Get a load of this
I hope Hollywood makes Kidman happy, but on the evidence of a one-note performance in Cold Mountain and an unconvincing turn in The Human Stain (both filmed afterwards, but released before), she benefits immensely from a tough-as-teak director who wont allow her to fake it. Either that or Dogville was so draining that she needed to go on (ahem) cruise control. Because her acting here is astonishing. Shes soulful, sexy, tender and true- embodying her character name (Grace), without becoming a caricature. If her turn in The Hours deserved an Oscar (it didnt), this should have received two-especially given the supporting cast are no make-the-star-shine slouches. Paul Bettany hands between sympathetic and sinister as Kidmans love interest, and its excellent to se Ben Gazzara relish a role that matches gis ability (as an apparently benign, half-blind old man), and an old-time Hollywood actress such as Bacall in challenging, contemporary cinema.
For Dogville is challenging. A three-hour examination of small-town hate and hypocrisy, filmed in unflashing, unsparing style, it doesnt even allow any lush Colorado scenery to soften the impact of what we watch; in fact, there are no buildings and barely any props. The town is drawn in chalk outlines on a black stage, each structure identified by its name scrawled on the floor, seen in a series of Gods-eye-view overhead shots. Sound effects are used to indicate opening doors; the actions mimed by the actors. As gimmicky as this device appears, it allows the audience to focus on the ideas being unveiled.
When the picture bowed at Cannes, it lost the Palm DOr to Elephant and the US trade press went (judge)mental over its supposed anti-US stance. They were particularly riled by the closing credits composed of Grapes Of Wrath-style, Depression-era photos soundtracked by David Bowies Young Americans.
But Dogville is sympathetic to the peoples plight in a way the media never is, because theres big business in peddling Puritanism. Dogvilles target is not America, but repression, not Americans, but the horror of hypocrisy. And while it may be overlong, its also provocative, compelling and downright impressive.
A young woman (Nicole Kidman) on the run from the mob is reluctantly accepted in a small Colorado town. In exchange, she agrees to work for them. However, as a search visits town, she finds out that their support has a price. Directed by revolutionary Danish film-maker Lars von Trier.