‘Dogville’ (2003) by Lars Von Trier

Director: Lars Von Trier

Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle

Writers: Lars Von Trier

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Chloe Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgard, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson

Rating: 95

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  • Dogville starts out abruptly, with it’s overbearing, fascinating and unique set design, that takes a few scenes to get used to, but ultimately is used masterfully as a narrative tool.
  • This film is a masterpiece. Straight up. It’s impactful in every scene, endlessly intriguing, every shot or line of dialogue builds towards this gross feeling of darkness that sits over the town like a storm cloud. Once the violence starts, it swallows the rest of the story and the trapped feeling is ever present. Lars Von Trier is quite good at getting these types of feelings and reactions to severe trauma bottled up through the eyes of a seemingly normal, small town. He hides the darkness within subtly but masterfully and it hits extremely hard in Dogville once it bubbles to the surface

The Darkness Hidden in Dogville

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  • Dogville builds on this idea of trust, a community of trust that must be earned. A sick, twisted level of trust that slowly builds into this debilitating disease that comes over the entire town. What happens to the men in this story, even Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) who’s the supposed sensible one in the town, reaches a new layer of darkness that hasn’t been fully explored like in Dogville. It’s truly despicable but returns to this idea of trust.
  • From the harmless opening and introduction of these characters, it never felt quite right. Maybe it was the shallowness that’s portrayed through the chalk set designs or the hidden identities of these people, but the film.wonderfully builds this knot in your stomach that something is horribly wrong in this town. The total isolation of Dogville and the idea of someone always watching over your shoulder persist throughout. Nothing Grace Margaret (Nicole Kidman) does in this film, good or bad, goes unnoticed. The visual and narrative storytelling is marvelous in this regard.

Invisible Buildings

  • Let’s talk about the lack of walls in Dogville and the creative choice that led to some incredibly memorable and lasting imagery. Right off the first cut, Dogville stands out. The camera sits directly above the town, like a game of Clue, as we literally peer into each house with intrigue. The lack of walls plays into this idea that nothing is hidden from this community, while the reality is EVERYTHING is hidden, from everyone. It’s a brilliant way to display this in a narrative sense, as the audiences get fed one thing when the image tells you something else entirely.

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  • The simplicity of Dogville is also quite memorable. It almost feels like a stage performance, and in many ways, it is but uses the camera and that dark, barren black backdrop of the city to get a better sense of each character and Grace especially.
  • The acting to the scenery was also quite impressive. By the time the film ends, this awkward looking town blends completely into the backdrop of the story and we almost imagine those barriers are there without seeing them. It’s distracting at first, with entering doors looking weird, but that all fades and even the Gooseberry bushes feel present. It’s all a narrative tool that works perfectly in conjunction with the themes of the story. Von Trier absolutely nails it with the extreme lighting, that is extra revealing, and the camera that is able to show one scene with an entirely different scene happening in a different building in the backdrop.

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  • The two best examples of this in the film are the Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard) rape scene, which has Thomas (Grace’s lone confidence) right outside as she lays on Chuck’s floor devastated. The rest of the town is shown doing normal, everyday things. The other great example is near the end, where the town is having a meeting and Grace and Thomas are having a conversation directly outside. Both scenes show a disconnect between morality and humanity in such a way
  • This film captures the essence of men, and the toxic nature of a man despite upbringing and circumstance. The worst of it is Tom Edison and the dynamic between him and Grace that is ultimately responsible for her misfortune, and his own demise. All types of men prey on Grace in this film, and she seems to bring out the devil in this small town.

Nicole Kidman Brings it Home

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  • Now, for the incredible wealth of acting talent in Dogville, including legendary actress Lauren Bacall, or Ben Gazzara from Cassavetes films. It’s a true one-of-a-kind ensemble and helps raise up the one complaint I have in this film, that at times the writing comes off extremely flat. The work of the entire ensemble is noteworthy. Vera (Patricia Clarkson) is one of the most unwelcoming, evil performances I can remember. Same goes for the cold shoulder of Bacall, or the knowingly ignorant Jack McCay (Gazzara). Each performance brings an entirely different layer.

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  • The two standouts have to be the leads: Nicole Kidman is masterful in Dogville, the concealing, mysterious nature of her character is captured perfectly by Kidman’s quiet talking voice and instant submission. She stands out in every way and is absolutely gorgeous in this film. The other standout is Paul Beatty, who’s constant pacing and shame is so prevalent in the narrative. He’s more submissive than Grace, as he’s completely confined by all the norms and structures set up by the town. He’s a great mediator for Grace and the rest of the town.
  • Lastly, the ending…a most satisfying end to some of the most treacherous characters ever in film. The film wants to feel some redemption after what Grace had just gone through, and as that giant beaming light cast it’s shadows on Dogville, and her mind goes from forgiveness to wrath, it all makes sense. I can’t say I was cheering for this resolution, but the anger pent up inside was released in a second. It was brutal. It was dark, but it was necessary for the end. It fit as if the entire film built towards the moment the gangster open fire.

Verdict

It’s a masterpiece.

Unique in every way that works so well with the themes and message of the narrative. It’s elevated by one of the best cast I’ve ever seen but brought to another level through the direction of Von Trier. It’s stunning.

And while it is a long film, nothing seems to drag. The story absorbs you entirely. I doubt we get a film as uniquely crafted and performed like Dogville ever again. It was a dark one-off that will stick with me for the rest of my life.


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