Beware of Dogville

Last winter, New Yorker movie critic and self-proclaimed American sucker David Denby got all territorial. Looking at a lineup of movies set in America but directed by damn foreigners — movies full of gloomy Guses dragging their feet from one misfortune to the next — Denby complained that these pictures “don’t really get America right.” He argued that, much like the editors of The New Yorker who decided that Denby was the best movie critic they were likely to be able to hire, “they accept tragedy too easily.” Not all of the films under review deserve better, or at least not that much better, than the scorn of the American Sucker. Yes, House of Sand and Fog, which attempts to build a modern Greek tragedy out of the truism that it’s best not to let the mail pile up unopened, is so rigidly downbeat that it amounts to a libel on the social milieu in which it’s set, but that would be true if it were set in Transylvania with Dracula’s castle in the background. And even that one isn’t much phonier in its tony defeatism than Denby’s favorite picture of the year, Mystic River, from international auteur C. Eastwood.

In a movie culture where a loaded game like Eastwood’s latest piece of dishpan cinema can rack up great reviews by the bucketful, maybe people can be forgiven for not noticing that there have recently been a string of remarkable visions of America as seen by outside observers — movies like the Irish Jim Sheridan’s autobiographical rhapsody In America, the French animation The Triplets of Belleville, and Neil Young’s spiky, soulfully lo-tech Greendale. And now, we have Dogville, the first film in Lars von Trier’s projected “USA Trilogy.” This one will make some of us wonder if possibly Denby has a point after all, but we’ll just add that to the list of things that von Trier will have to answer for when the man comes around.

Von Trier is a formal experimenter, a theorist, and a provocateur, which means that as soon as people stop taking the bait and cease to be pissed off by his movies, he’ll be out of a career. (Then he gets to sit on the bench with Ken Russell, Abel Ferrara and Larry Clark and reminisce about the good old days when people cared enough to find them shocking, while they wait for Gaspar Noe to arrive with the pizza.) Von Trier hit paydirt when Dogville screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year in the wake of the blockbuster George Bush production, Gulf War II: This Time It’s Personal. With three-quarters of the world shaking its head at the spectacle of America rattling its saber and screaming that it was doing it for the good of you chickenshit foreign rabble, some of the American critics at the festival must have been feeling touchier than usual, so that when (shudder) “anti-Americanism” was detected in von Trier’s epic parable of human nastiness, it set off tremors in the press that that word hasn’t set off in a while.

Except for a few hardcore fans who have pointed out that, based on the evidence of his films, von Trier has so much contempt for human beings in general that it seems silly to boil it down to hatred for one country, nobody seems to be trying to fight the charge. (In fact, the legions of von Trier defenders have been quietly giving up some ground with each new release; I remember when they’d fight you if you called the master’s work “sadistic.” Most of them don’t do that anymore. Which is why the critics who admire his work have been reduced to such strikingly schizoid expressions of “praise” as: “brilliant but loathsome” — Sarah Kerr, Slate; “true to its hateful vision” — Stephen Holden, New York Times; and “insufferably pretentious” yet “a masterpiece” — J. Hoberman, Village Voice.)

The smart word on Dogville is that, sure, it’s anti-American, and so what? It’s true that it’s funny to see people like Kenneth Turan waving the “anti-American” anti-flag as if it were a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and it’s tempting to agree that any position that offends the Kenneth Turans of the world must be the correct one. But is it really possible for a movie that, by its very design, writes off a whole country as a malignancy to be judged a masterpiece? Von Trier is out to show how little he thinks of the people in his movie and the culture that produced them, and to say that he succeeds is to say that he’s produced the most small-minded epic imaginable.

The anti-Americanism in Dogville is in a not-so-great tradition that includes Dušan Makavejev’s 1974 Sweet Movie (featuring John Vernon as the richest man in the world, one Mister Capitol, who wears a cowboy hat and talks in a Texas accent, and who attempts to deflower his European-beauty queen bride with his gold-plated phallus), Dennis Hopper’s 1971 The Last Movie (which, wrote Andrew Sarris, was garlanded at European festivals “because Europeans get orgasms from the thought that Americans are prepared to commit suicide en masse”), and Godard’s recent, speechifying (and Spielberg-bashing) In Praise of Love. For those of us who actually have to watch the forces of imperial America try to keep their pants up in public, it’s kind of sweet to learn that there are still people who can work up this amount of bile towards its supposedly fearsome might, but it’s also kind of dopey. Suppose some Bill O’Reilly type were to write and direct a movie called Frogville, a universalist fable set in a town full of beret-wearing, mustache-twirling fellows, all of whom are named Jacques, who are too cowardly by nature and too bloated from overconsumption of wine and Brie to defend their town from military incursion by a swarm of gnats? Why, everyone would be too bored to roll their eyes at it. But at this late date in the American empire, you can still cook up a cartoon passion play, stick a banker’s hat or chaps on your villain, have him kick a puppy in an Our Town pastoral setting, and people will either murmur “Zere is much truth in zees” or write an angry Wall Street Journal editorial demanding to know where these Commie bastards get their funding.

Unlike some of the guys who’ve retired to the shock tower, von Trier does know what he’s doing as a filmmaker, and he keeps learning. I found his last one, Dancer in the Dark — a movie that answered the pressing question “What if Douglas Sirk ripped off Pennies from Heaven and really fucked up the musical numbers?” — a nightmare to sit through, as turgid and uninvolving as it was stupid (I know the stupidity was supposed to ironic, but it looked like the real deal to me) and (the von Trier trademark) simply unpleasant. The fact that I found Dogville comparatively easy to endure probably has something to do with lowered expectations, since back in 2000 I was still fool enough to walk into Dancer with hopes of a good time. (The fact that I did this even though I had seen Zentropa and Breaking the Waves probably means that a contest between David Denby and myself for the title of National Village Idiot might turn out a lot closer than I’d like.)

Still, facts are facts: Dogville runs three goddamn hours and was filmed entirely on a minimalist soundstage, representing the secluded American mountain town of Dogville, with the houses and such important items as the town’s gooseberry bushes labeled on the barren floor. It ought to have people gasping for oxygen inside of its opening 15 minutes, but it doesn’t. “Dogme 95” or no “Dogme 95,” von Trier is still the aspiring wizard whose pre-Dogme film Zentropa was such an unrelenting, exhausting encyclopedia of empty visual flash. He presents himself with a real challenge as a technician in his work: how can I keep taking away avenues of expressiveness (music, stage lighting, now even sets) and make people’s eyes pop? He does it here with a free-swinging camera and unexpected, jarring cuts in the middle of people’s conversations. (At least one of them here, which interrupts a young couple who we think are on the verge of a kiss, even serves to make an actual point!) As far as creating the illusion that he’s giving you something to watch, Dogville is the most successful of his films since he entered his Ramones period of stripping down to essentials, maybe his most successful film ever.

But that challenge to his showmanship as a director is the only challenge von Trier offers himself. In both of his previous tributes to the supposedly sacred nature of female degradation, Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, he created a lead character whose ferocious rejection of simple logic or self-preservation was supposed to be evidence of the depth of her capacity for loving devotion, set her up in an unlikely situation, and kept piling up implausibilities as if he were daring viewers to say “This is too stupid for words” and just tune out. All that mattered to him, as a writer, was getting his heroines to Calvary, and he was going to get them there if he had to resort to devices that would have embarrassed Charlie Kaufman’s brother Donald.

Partly by design, and partly because Nicole Kidman, who plays his abused heroine this time, isn’t a touching enough actress to inspire the empathy that Emily Watson in Waves and Bjork in Dancer managed to, Dogville is less of an emotional workout and more of a tract. It begins with an unseen narrator, John Hurt (speaking in a tone that suggests the host of “Grimm Fairy Tales for Very Condescending Boys and Girls”) describing the vintage-America hellscape of Dogville and introducing the central figure, Tom Edison Jr. Tom, played by Paul Bettany in a style that suggests a depraved John Boy Walton, is the young American artist, the aspiring thinker and writer in his small hometown. He is, in short, a gaseous blowhard, whose life as a writer consists of wandering the town in a daze imagining the triumphs he’ll enjoy when everyone recognizes his genius. For recreation, he regularly gathers the townfolk and lectures them on “moral rearmament.” (I don’t know what he says, because here, as throughout the movie, when it would take a little effort to find the dialogue through which the characters might best express themselves, von Trier just has the narrator explain what’s going on while the people onscreen wave their arms or nod their heads. But you can rest assured that, whatever Tom says or does, he’s full of shit.)

The tedium of life in Dogville (and Dogville) is broken by the arrival of Grace (Kidman), a movie-star-gorgeous damsel in distress — she’s fleeing gangsters who’ve taken a few shots at her. Tom persuades the townspeople to give her a chance to prove her worthiness to take refuge among them, and soon Grace has, by her charm and willingness to do any kind of labor, and by her own skillfully deployed wiliness, eventually manages to overcome their suspiciousness of outsiders (and their simple reluctance to allow for any change in the way of life they’ve grown accustomed to) and become an essential part of the town — beloved, in fact. For those who know what’s liable to happen in a von Trier movie, this part of the movie — roughly its first hour — is like watching an unpredictable, violent sociopath stroke a kitten while casting furtive looks at a nearby flamethrower.

Tom thinks that he’s using Grace (who he will, naturally, come to believe he’s in love with) to make a “demonstration” of something or other to the town; by the end, Grace will have turned the tables and given him a demonstration that, as he’ll say, kicks the hell out of his. The whole movie is von Trier’s demonstration of the awfulness of human nature or the corrupting influence of capitalism or maybe just what you have to sink to nowadays if you want people to argue about your movies. The subtheme about capitalism comes across most explicitly in a scene where Tom proposes to Grace that she work harder for less money after the sheriff has been around asking questions, as a way to compensate the town for the “greater danger” she now seems to represent. If Dogville showed us believable, even likable characters who slowly find themselves beginning to take advantage of someone who’s not in a position to talk back, it might say something real about the way people are and society works. Tom’s speech, though, doesn’t ring true — it’s too obviously flagrant bullshit that’s been concocted not by a character to justify the town’s behavior, but by von Trier to show what a hypocritical ass the speaker is.

The moment when things really begin to turn for Grace is signaled with a shot of the children she’s been minding; up to now, they haven’t had any detectable personalities at all, but suddenly they’re all leering at her diabolically like the kids from the British horror classic Village of the Damned. The next thing you know, she’s in a battle of wits with a little boy who perversely demands that she give him a spanking and finally blackmails her into doing it. (He’s supposed to be Stellan Skarsgård’s kid, so that part does have an element of believability. Seriously, Skarsgård does have a strong scene with Grace in which he talks about his wanting her to “respect” him, and she tries to tell him that they’re friends, while both avoid addressing the sexual tension that’s their real subject. Rather than spelling out its meaning in block letters, it gets at something complicated in the way that human beings interact, and it fits into the overall scheme of Dogville about as well as a wet T-shirt contest would fit into The Three Sisters.)

Once the tide turns, the whole town turns fast against Grace, and soon she’s the town chattel, being abused and denounced by the same people who not long before were making speeches about the light and happiness she’d brought to the town. (In a detail of virtuoso gratuitous cruelty, the narrator mentions that the men who regularly sneak off to have sexual relations with Grace do so in the casual, slightly ashamed way that “a hillbilly might have congress with a cow.”) The fact that it’s Nicole Kidman, Hollywood’s reigning Queen Glamourpuss, who’s being raped and mistreated up there does give an extra element of kinky electricity to the proceedings — or at least, to the idea of the proceedings. In practice, Kidman doesn’t bring a whole lot to the party. She’s fine — she looks smashingly beautiful, and she talks in a sweet-little-girl voice and seems very nice. (And the climactic revelation of what she’s been through allows her stubborn determination to try to remain nice in the face of constant mistreatment make enough sense that she doesn’t come across as weirdly addled, the way Watson’s and Bjork’s characters did.)

However, Kidman, though a capable actress, doesn’t transcend or spill over the edges of her roles the way a great performer sometimes does, nor does she inspire the kind of identification that a major star does. (It’s no accident that her best full-scale performance was in the ghost story The Others, playing a woman so starchily repressed that she couldn’t get it through her head that she’d died.) Her niceness is a mild focus compared to the passionate abandon of Watson and Bjork. So you’re left clinically detached, watching the proceedings without being emotionally drawn in. Given what’s there to be drawn into, this is a lucky break.

In the end, Dogville comes full circle with a vengeance. The ending reminded me, of all things, of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven — another movie that set out to make a point and got it made, by God, at the expense of any degree of surprise or unpredictability in the characters or narrative. The ending reinforces just how thoroughly programmed the movie is, much more so than Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark, with their rigged set-ups and doomed heroines. Von Trier has stepped away from driving his heroine all the way to the grave, which is a relief, but I’m not so crazy about what he’s found to replace it. He ends up dividing the world (or at least what Hurt’s plummy-voiced narrator calls “the U. S. of A”) into losers — dogs — and monsters, those who are smart enough and think big enough to wield the lash.

Grace ran away from a “city” world apparently too hellish to be imagined to seek refuge in the country, only to find that the only difference is that the small-town people are small-timers content to make life harder for each other. Honestly, it’s not the most original vision that anyone ever built a movie around. It’s just usually seen at a scale more flattering to its actual proportions: in grubby noir thrillers, where the small-minded meanness can be scary and exciting; or in dark comedies, where there’s a chance it’ll be funny. But the point is not much to take away from a three-hour demonstration of life’s range of possibilities.

Von Trier makes his point, all right, even if his technique for making his points recalls that of Robert Stroud, who’s said to have once told an overweight guard at Alcatraz that the guard’s heart wouldn’t keep him alive much longer, then proved his point by sticking a knife in it. He makes his nasty, petty little case even though he keeps the show running long enough to cancel itself out. When Tom Edison Jr. is showing Grace the town, he treats her to a running commentary on the foibles and ugliness of the people, which inspires her to chide him for his smug nastiness. Dogville is about bringing Grace around to Tom’s point of view. However, even though his adolescent snottiness turns out to be validated by events (his own behavior included), we’re still meant to see every single thing Tom says and does as proof that he’s a jackass. Von Trier doesn’t waste his respect on the occasional character of his who happens to agree with him; you can bet the character agrees in the wrong way.

The sequence in Dogville that inspires the strongest reaction is the closing credit sequence, which is accompanied by a montage of photographs of American poverty and misery — Depression victims immortalized by Dorothea Lange, dead bodies lying in the street, miserable inner-city images of hungry children and unsteady adults. (It’s jauntily scored to David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”) Looking at these faces right after you’ve spent three hours seeing America as it looks through von Trier’s eyes has the most extraordinary effect: whatever feelings of respect or sympathy or righteous anger these faces might have inspired before, now they look like the denizens of Dogville, and it would be natural to make the next leap and conclude that wherever they are in life, they’ve gotten what they deserve. (The conclusion of Dogville, like that of Unforgiven, is likely to make you feel that way even as your brain dutifully recognizes that you’re meant to see the horror in it.)

It’s probably the most obscene thing I’ve seen in a movie in years, and it points to just how oddly this movie’s supporters and detractors have tended to line up politically, given what’s really in it. Dogville implicitly nudges you to feel respect for its rich, powerful monsters; you’re far more likely to identify with them than the mingy, stupid, hypocritical small-town variety of monster, especially when the chief monster (who gets to deliver a speech defending his side) is Sonny Corleone himself, James Caan (Caan plods through his scene looking as if he’s preoccupied, perhaps hoping he has something good to do on next week’s “Las Vegas”). Caan’s speech would have brought John D. Rockefeller to his feet shouting and cheering, and John Ashcroft (though regretting the messenger) would at least smile and nod his approval.

Dogville says that you have to claw your way to the top no matter what. Whoever you have to step on to get there deserves worse — the poor, the disenfranchised, the uneducated, they’d all do the same to you if they had the guts. It’s a strange message to hear from a movie hailed by liberal-minded viewers, but sometimes I guess you have to suck it up if you want to do the right thing and make Kenneth Turan unhappy to see anti-Americanism rewarded.