Slobber Over Bloodshed: Lars von Trier’s Dogville

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The ugliness of human nature—has there ever been a theme nearer to Lars von Trier? After mulling over Dogville for a couple of weeks (or avoiding doing so) I’ve decided that the one-dimensionality of the writer-director’s ideas reflects merely his own nature and those perhaps of his ever-dwindling supply of champions. When Grace orders her mobster father to gun down the entire cast at the film’s end, aren’t the few critics who continue to cobble excuses for von Trier just responding—with knees jerked—to their own blood thirst? The Stranger’s David Schmader claims that by Dogville’s grim climax, “…we’re eager for the carnage.” Oh? I’m as guilty of using the subjective first person plural as the next writer, but I cannot fathom whom Schmader’s “we” consists of.

And why might we be eager for the carnage? At least Schmader comes right out and says it, as opposed to J. Hoberman, who hides behind that timorous word “masterpiece.” Alan Morrison of Empire Online states that Dogville “…shows a deep understanding of human beings as they really are.” Von Trier understands how some human beings really are; depth is precisely what’s absent in his extended sick-joke contrivances. A few of the early scenes manage to come off reasonably well, in spite of the director’s ineptitude at either creating characters or working with actors. The performers seem game: Ben Gazzara, in particular, gives a lovely, spirited interpretation of an elderly blind man whose memories are mostly descriptions of light. Von Trier crushes Gazzara’s conception by turning the old man into still another sexual miscreant who takes advantage of Grace (Nicole Kidman). Thus, “we” might be “eager” for the display of inhumanity at the end if Dogville hadn’t clung steadily to von Trier’s picayune thesis, if instead it had been truer to life, that is if some, even a majority, of the villagers turned against Grace rather than the whole lot of them sans exception. If any of them, for example, were allowed to maintain a shred of decency even as their neighbors cheat and assault her. In life, Grace would likely still have at least a couple of supporters on her side, and that might (maybe) lend the sadistic, cinematically unsatisfying bloodbath that erupts the kind of emotional truth or resonance for which von Trier may or may not strive. (As bullying, empty-headed jokers go, he’s about on par with Charlie Kaufman.) If as a conflicted human being, Grace nonetheless orders their executions and feels remorse for the good lost along with the villainous, then…maybe. As is, von Trier presents a cartoon vigilante blowing away cartoon baddies. It’s dull, it’s insulting, and while it’s still possible to empathize with Grace on a certain revenge-seeking level, von Trier voids even this by lingering on the annihilations in such tortured detail.

The simple-minded, snickery prudishness at Dogville’s core—the basic von Trier sensibility—can’t be ignored. It drowns the moments that work or hint at promise. Looking back through the pages of notes I took when Dogville was screened for press, I might never have remembered this one exquisitely sweet-natured touch that comes and vanishes: the fugitive Grace, who expects the townspeople to vote her out of their community, opens her bundle to discover unexpectedly placed tokens of good will and esteem. Someone has given her a map, another a loaf of bread, and Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall) has baked a gooseberry pie, tucking it in carefully. Kidman’s face registers these gestures of kindness, and it’s a sublime moment for the actress, the character, and the film.

There are a few other fleeting snippets of just right. When Grace initially arrives in Dogville, the self-appointed civic leader Tom Edison (played by Paul Bettany, who demonstrates how difficult it is to be a sympathetic character and an ineffectual boob simultaneously) gives her a tour, chiding and criticizing his fellow citizens as they go. Grace shoots back: “If this is the town you love, you have a strange way of showing it.” Later, at a Fourth of July picnic as flower blossoms fall like snowflakes, Tom, in stumbling words, tells Grace he loves her—it’s an honestly coy, goofy moment. Kidman and Chloë Sevigny (who’s excellent until the film turns exclusively to sadomasochism) share some wonderful sisterly rapport between them, warding off the roving eyes of the men. There’s a brief shot of Kidman and Patricia Clarkson laughing earnestly—at what? Why can’t or won’t von Trier let us in?

chloeClarkson and Kidman physically complement each other in surprising ways; I often wished they would chuck the lame script and invent a scenario of their own. They might as well have—their scenes are ludicrous. Clarkson, as the mother of five, asks Kidman not to say nice things about her children. “I cry easily,” Clarkson’s Vera states, and adds after a long pause, “in sorrow and in joy.” I can imagine Clarkson secretly gagging over this line, perhaps asking von Trier to cut it. When Vera, on a rampage, invades Grace’s house in the night and threatens her, it’s Kidman’s turn to spout lunacy: “Remember how happy your children were when I taught them the Doctrine of Stoicism?”

Nowhere, however, are the film’s moral and aesthetic failures more thoroughly manifest than in John Hurt’s onanistic voice-over narration. Cast as von Trier’s alter ego, this omnipotent narrator, whose haughty tones drip with venom (Hurt sounds like John Wood imitating Alistair Cooke), spiels off actions and motivations so that the actors—most of whom have no roles to play—might have even less asked of them. Is it really necessary for the narrator to inform us that, “Grace stiffened as the bell began its toll”? Wouldn’t Kidman’s body language indicate that perfectly well? In a pivotal scene between Tom and Grace, at the point where he decides to betray her to the mobsters, Hurt goes on about Tom’s being “found out” as a philosopher. Well, how? How does the inscrutable chatter of Grace (who by this time has been shackled in chains and enslaved in prostitution) and Tom (the only man who hasn’t slept with her) account for Tom’s change of heart? And shouldn’t Bettany be the one who shows us (or at least tries to) his character’s mixed emotions in all their illogical complexity?

The cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle makes the film look infinitely better than it is. He opens with a dazzling aerial composition of the players on the mostly empty soundstage, which from that height resembles a giant chalkboard decked by little pawns. Mantle’s gauzy lighting effects, such as in the early exchanges between Gazzara and Kidman, and at the picnic sequence, indicate something deeper, richer, more subtle than von Trier’s deranged script cares to contemplate.

gazzaraThe entire film coasts on the associations that the technicians and performers bring to it; von Trier adds nothing. He gathers together a wide range of actors, most of whom are linked in moviegoers’ minds with famous (and far more capable) directors. Harriet Andersson has little to do or say here, but she does have a Bergman pedigree. (Who can forget how sexy she looked as Petra in Smiles of a Summer Night?) James Caan has played in so many gangster movies that casting him as a mobster automatically fills in the work for von Trier. Clarkson, Sevigny, and Jeremy Davies (speechless as the village idiot) have indie credibility to spare, and Philip Baker Hall, as the town doctor, generates warmth solely with the sound of his rumbling bear voice. I never saw Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, but I love Blair Brown for her quick wit and humor in other roles, notably her bravura work in David Hare’s Strapless. Von Trier reduces Brown to a frumpy, uninteresting, asthmatic hag devoid of any redeeming qualities. With Gazzara, of course, there’s the Cassavetes connection. The nagging subtext of Dogville—what makes me sick about it—looms in von Trier’s unclothed joy in squandering these treasures. Dogville is more wretched and shameful even than von Trier’s previous film Dancer in the Dark. There isn’t a satirical spirit at work in these movies, despite parodic elements in both. It’s a murderous, resentful, well educated yet deeply uninformed spirit that was plain to me, one that usurps the calls of “anti-Americanism” occasioned by Dogville’s U.S. release. While I would agree that the United States needs to stop congratulating itself on its failures (Bush, Iraq, lack of universal health care, and an abundance of poverty) von Trier hasn’t come up with anything that resembles a thought, an insight, a point of view, a coherent polemic.

Finally, a word about Lauren Bacall as Ma Ginger, baker of berry pies and owner of a mercantile shop. Bacall still manages, even at her advanced age, to impart a sense of glamour: it’s all in that inimitable husky voice, and when she spoke her first line in Dogville, “Don’t give me any of your lip, Thomas Edison, Jr!” I laughed out loud. (I was the only person in the theatre to do so.) After Ma Ginger recruits Grace to tend the soil, she remarks, “Those alabaster hands of yours are engaged to the wilds of the gooseberry bushes.” Bacall’s twin gifts of a beautifully scarred timbre and a tart delivery make this ridiculous line seem vaguely witty. Her presence here can’t help but conjure memories of ‘40s noir: the films that she and Bogart made for Howard Hawks and John Huston. Dogville—this movie leaves a bitter taste in the soul—plays as Key Largo might’ve if Edward G. Robinson’s mob had mowed down their hurricane stranded hostages. – NPT

April 23, 2004

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