Dogville: meaning and analysis of Lars Von Trier’s masterpiece

Posted by

“I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by DOGME 95:

    1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a prop is necessary to the story, a location must be chosen where the prop is to be found).
    2. The sound must never be produced apart from the image, or vice versa (music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shoot).
    3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).
    4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure, the scene must occur, or a single lamp may be attached to the camera.)
    5. Optical work and filters are forbidden
    6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur).
    7. Temporal and geographical alienation is forbidden. (That is to say the film must take place in the here and now).
    8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
    9. The film must be Academy 35mm.
    10. The director must not be credited.

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY.”

On March 13th, 1995, a young Lars Von Trier (who’s already an highly appreciated filmmaker) decides to write and sign together with a group of other Scandinavian directors (among whose there is also Thomas Vinterberg) the Dogme ’95 Manifesto, a real “vow of chastity” that presents itself as “a rescue action to eliminate the illusion from the seventh art and make it as close to reality as possible”. In 2003 with Dogville the Danish director almost completely repudiates his vow of chastity, by filming a Brechtian work that wants to be a metaphor of the entire human condition. The movie is the complete opposite of the Manifesto: a totally essential, Brechtian scenography, the insertion of a soundtrack that accentuates only few narrative moments, a dramaturgical function of the lights, the presence of a diva, an almost total temporal and geographic abstraction, and a unique director signature.

Dogville is part of a trilogy (USA, Land of opportunities) together with Manderlay and Wasingston, whose aim is the critique of the small-bourgeois and capitalist American society which turns (thanks to its scenic abstraction) into a condemnation of the whole occidental world. In this perspective, Nicole Kidman with her angel’s face, her blond hair and her bright, penetrating eyes becomes symbolically the sacrificial lamb of capitalism.

Kidman interprets Grace, a woman that finds a shelter from some gangsters in Dogville, a tiny village located in the Rocky Mountains. The Dogville’s population has just 15 adults, four children and one dog, including Tom, a young wannabe-writer with whom Grace will fall in love. It’s a closed universe, where everyone has a precise task in order to carry on the society. Von Trier decides to rebuild the town artificially, presenting it as a stage of an isolated theater which is decontextualized by the rest of the world, a real metaphor of the whole society (Brecht’s influence is really strong).

In this very undressed scenography we would expect to appreciate a static way of filming, with a few camera’s movements. But the use of camera here seems to reconciliate with the Manifesto: we have sudden zooms, which avoid the connection on the axis and give the impression of direct capture of the filmed reality. The hand-held camera make us enter physically on the stage.

Dogville Prolog

Nevertheless, as we’ve just said, Brecht is the major influence of the movie. He is not only present in the scenography, but mostly in the division of the film in nine chapters and a prologue, all introduced by a description of what will happen in the episode. In this way the director does not allow the spectator to get carried away by emotions and to enter romantically in the film: describing in advance what will happen shortly, reason and thought take over the feelings, and the spectator can think critically about what he sees. Each chapter has its own story and goes against the linear narrative based on the cause-effect relationship, assuming an universal intellectual value. In the three hours of duration, Lars Von Trier really challenges the spectator: he totally cancels the surprise effect and doesn’t make possible to the audience the cathartic identification with the protagonists (also here we can see Brecht), proposing an estranging and cold acting.

The talented Kidman coolly reacts and suffers the plight of Dogville. At the beginning the community is reluctant to accept a foreign element, but then they accept the conditions proposed by Tom: in the following week Grace will lend help to the inhabitants of the town, and at the end of it the citizens will vote and decide whether to allow her to stay or not. Grace enthusiastically lends itself to every kind of work. Everyone, slowly, is convinced by his work, even the reluctant Chuck (who moved in the past to Dogville from a big city, and who sees in Grace himself). The town therefore votes favourably the introduction of the woman in the society and all is seasoned by the declaration of love between the same Grace and Tom: the integration seems to be truly completed. From the outside, however, the precarious tranquility of the community is disturbed by police notices that indicate the girl first as sought for disappearance, and then wanted for robbery: the pledge to pay for Grace for the dangerous change of situation is an increase in workload.

Here in Von Trier’s critical vision, the stranger becomes a resource that is good until it can be exploited, and the feelings and the fear are only hypocrite excuses in the attempt to justify the petty-bourgeois utilitarianism. The defense of the territory, the accentuation given to its roots, the recall to an idea of community having in common something (the nation), are only tools for the realization of the own personal gain. In this sense, therefore, the stranger, who does not belong to the nation, has its own social usefulness only in its being an object, despite the appearance may seem false: in capitalism the subject does not contemplate the presence of other subjects around him, but only of goods that can (must) be used.

But Grace is not only the stranger, she is also a woman, and this is an element that cannot be ignored. The Kidman is venerated for her own beauty, is used, is loved from afar, is exploited and idealized. In this sense a phenomenal scene is the rape of Grace by Chuck: it takes place in the house, and therefore behind closed doors, but since the walls of the houses in the scenography conceived by the director consist only of lines drawn on the floor, the spectator sees a disconcerting reality in which rape is in fact under the eyes of all the inhabitants of Dogville, but they do not see and warn anything. This is certainly a strong and powerful metaphor of the attitude of society in front of the violence perpetrated on the figure of woman: the problem is clear and obvious and is seen by everyone, but no one acts or say anything in order to change this depressing situation.

Grace then arrives to be an object, a real slave of the community of Dogville, until the end of the film, or until the arrival of the gangsters (the same from which the protagonist escaped in the first chapter of the film) in the town. Here we have a powerful plot twist: the gangsters’ boss is in fact Grace’s father. In the speech in the car, the boss reproaches his daughter for his arrogance: justifying the evil actions of others in any moment is just arrogance, as she thinks that the other human beings are not capable of respecting the high moral standards that she imposes to herself. Grace at first doesn’t want to return to her past life, but then she looks at Dogville (the metaphor of society) and she understands her own arrogance: she understands that society is in no way justifiable, she understands that society has had, has, and will forever have opportunities to redeem herself, opportunities that are, however, systematically and tragically wasted. And then the small and symbolic scenography is on fire, the world is on fire, and the petty-bourgeois falls with him. It’s the total collapse of capitalism.

The work of Von Trier ends therefore with a baffling, allegorical massacre of the inhabitants of Dogville: the power massacres the society, but it was the society itself to cause its own massacre. As if it wasn’t enough, in the credits the director reminds us to remember that the situation described is universal, of course, but it’s the United States, the cradle of capitalism, the true evil of society: images of American rural life flow with the background of Young Americans by David Bowie. This is the final punch of Lars Von Trier to the spectator, obviously given with the right hand, the one with “Fuck written on the knuckles.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.