Movie Review: Dogville

By Moira Sullivan
Movie Magazine International
Dogville is a multilevel experience with room for a myriad of perceptions. The art direction is highly imaginative, where a fictional town consists of a set of chalk drawings that represent each of the inhabitant's houses. Only one chalk drawing represents something animate: the town dog. Some US film critics blasted the film in Cannes at its debut for its alleged anti-Americanism angered because Von Trier wasn't born in the USA nor ever been there. But despite never having set foot in the US in truth Von Trier may be on par with Upton Sinclair and Thornton Wilder's critical view of American capitalism. In fact, Dogville is not a typical American town at all but a small town speaking Danish English with cultural implants, suffering from poverty and moral coding. The film is fictionally set in America in the Rocky Mountains though there are no traditional 'images' to prove this, and the people seem to be Americans, for example they celebrate fourth of July. There are gangsters, and local sheriff on both sides of the law.

Dogville looks at poverty and class divisions in a hermetically sealed village. More importantly, it investigates an idiosyncratic morality put into play when an outsider ventures inside and the towns reaction to her 'otherness'. In the end, this visitor has no more rights than livestock.

I found the critical stance in Dogville to be reflective of the Nordic 'Jante Law', a moral code that keeps people in place like 'winners and losers' in the US. In this code you should not think you are anyone, put on airs. Grace, played by Nicole Kidman is the ultimate threat to this town. She tries to fit in but is really ostracized from the beginning because she is an outsider. Von Trier finds parallels with the present Danish government which is horribly xenophobic, requiring language tests for residency, refusing to let Danish nationals marry non-Danish citizens.
Eventually Dogville warms up to Grace, but she is always an outsider until the townsfolk turn against her full scale. Then there is some ironic unexpected 'glory' in the ending, where Kidman gets her pay back time.
Nicole Kidman and Björk play similar characters in 'Dogville' and 'Dancer in the Dark' in that they absorb and pay for 'the sins' of their neighbors, the archetypal role of women in culture.

The influence of Bertold Brecht on the work of Von Trier is profound both in terms of theater production and the creation of the Imaginary. Brecht escaped Hitler's Germany and lived in exile in Scandinavia before departing CA. He wound up creating plays on an Imaginary America, much like Von Trier, with stories involving gangsters and the electric chair. (Compare this with Von Trier's 'Dancer in the Dark').
Brecht felt that it was important for an audience to imagine their material conditions and the effects of capital rather than create photographs to reproduce this. Von Trier seems to make a compromise with the chalk drawings for a town, and uses end credits mixed with photography. Dorothea Lange and the Dane (Jacob Holdt) traveled across the USA to capture images of poverty, in the 1920's and 1930's for Lange and in the 80's for Holdt. It is their photographs that visualize what lies beneath the problems of Dogville.

For Movie Magazine, this is Moira Sullivan Stockholm Sweden

More Information:
France - 2003