Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Film: Dogville

A difference between madman and a genius is very small, they say. But I don’t think that’s much of a problem. But the difference between genius and a merely talented eccentric person is sometimes even smaller. Take, for instance, the example of Danish director Lars von Trier: Career of this filmmaker culminated in 1991’s “Europa” (aka. “Zentropa”) that gained him world recognition - even though he gained attention with his early film “Elements of crime”, it was “Europa”, post-war Germany masterpiece shot partly in black and while and partly in colour (preceding technology-ridden lavishness of “Pleasantville”) that made him worldwide known and gained him a load of Cannes awards that year. But from the point where his reputation was made and his hands weren’t tied anymore, Von Trier proved to be more than inconsistent filmmaker, and my impression is that most of his inconsistency was due to his eccentricity; Take for example musical “Dancer in the dark” with Bjork in the main role; Praised by critics and winning Cannes Palme d’Or, this film was still a god-awful, incoherent, unwatchable; Bjork is a musician with unique composing and singing style, a figure so distinctive that it’s hard not to respect her – but her music does not make a musical material, period. That, and torn-apart cinematography...

But the best proof of Von Trier’s eccentricity and something that seriously shakes his credibility is so called “Dogme 95”, a list of ten filmmaking commandments that Von Trier and his colleagues gathered around the collective of the same name (, decided to follow strictly. I give their commandments here:

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).

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 be cut or a single lamp 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 are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

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.

Very restrictive, isn’t it? Makes one wonder, why would a filmmaker limit himself that way? As a real artistic ideology, Dogme 95 is hard to take seriously (but then again, so were Dadaism and surrealism in their integral forms); Their commandments lead not to creative freedom, but to creative restriction; They challenge conventional film language, but don’t give anything in return – instead they just strip that language down and leave it that way, forgetting that film language as it is now, is a product of a natural process of researches and discoveries that spans to over a century now. They search for truth, but forget that sometimes, truth is told more powerful indirectly.

But take it as Von Trier’s way to get out of creative crises, or interesting experiment, or homage to the trash aesthetics that I like so much as well. Yet it all made me think of Von Trier more as a talented eccentric than as a genius.

“Dogville” might just make me lean on to the other side.

Far from being perfect, “Dogville” suffers through a few plot holes, a few predictable moments, a few less than subtle messages and a few segments too long that, for a film that lasts straight three hours, editors might’ve considered cutting out. But “Dogville” has a strong and complex moral discourse within itself, a strong emotional charge, stripped-down poetics and excellent performances to make up. And yet, a warning: a stressful experience, it is.

Story in outlines: In a small village Dogville, locked up by dangerous mountains on every side except one road that leads to the nearest city, comes a pursued woman called Grace (Nicole Kidman). A local self-proclaimed philosopher and writer Tom (Paul Bettany) helps her hide from her persecutors who appear to be gangsters, and slowly helps her gain acceptance from citizens of Dogville, so stay and hide within them.

However, happy days don’t last long as Trier has something to say about small-town society - and humanity in general – and it’s not a very nice thing. As it appears, Dogville was the real danger, it’s seemingly harmless nature, it’s Thornberry bushes and it’s stiffly polite citizens such Grace in, get under her skin, and then, unnoticed, ask her for more and more, and finally for more than she is able to give. At which point they start prosecuting her, torturing her, taking anger because of their personal emptiness out on her, until just about every little bit of faith from her is betrayed.

This torturous drama lasts for hours before its lengthy ending. Such strong emotional violence and abuse is rarely seen, and the film is more torturous to watch than any recent Hollywood product that features physical violence. Thing is, with time we get used to a certain amount of physical violence after which directors have to raise the bar to keep us shocked. So it’s a no big deal. But it’s emotional violence that we never get used to, and it seems always as shocking as new. And then, it’s also bare truth that is hard to bare. Props to Nicole Kidman for going through what seems like the most frustrating experience.

But, you know, all this doesn’t describe “Dogville” nearly accurate. Yes, those are outlines of the story. But Von Trier doesn’t just want to talk about how people are awful; No, moral questions in this film go much deeper than just displaying that ordinary people can be evil. He shows that people are capable of going even further if they’re just able to keep a mask of righteousness in front of society. Then, he wants to explore mechanisms of thinking that make people justify their actions; He shows that nobody accepts themselves as evil, that everybody is just managing to justify their actions in order to maintain a picture of themselves in their own eyes.

And then, at the end, Von Trier even considers whether it’s possible to forgive them.

Which is a theme of the last part of the film. As it appears, Grace is at the end in position to judge her own torturers; She has seen that people of Dogville are capable of doing the most horrible things; And she contemplates, whether they are indeed just like dogs following their instinct; If evil is in nature of humanity and it’s survivalist heritage, is it right to condemn people for what is in nature of their species? For, is it right to judge someone for what he is carrying hidden in his genes? And isn’t than that nature the right basis for measurement of morality?

Grace does not forgive. This doesn’t necessarily mean the negative answer to those questions; Possibly, Grace has changed to the point where she is not able to be a right judge anymore; Possibly, she has realized relativity of moral and that the only solution to this is that she adjusts it to her own needs, just as everybody else. But the general picture is that, based on the image of moral they have chosen, they accepted or gave up on grace that Grace could’ve given them - and yes, the link in her name is obviously not a coincidence. Dogville does just what any film should, prompts you to think. You may think that it is just another story about how people can be evil, but that’s nearly missing the point of the film. Watch last half an hour closely as it gives clues to understanding a lot of this film, as well as some of the most intriguing dialogues.

And yet, I still haven’t fully described Dogville. The thing is, there is something in it’s execution that makes it different from nearly every other film: Von Trier has retained just about enough “Dogma” items to make him keep the stripped aesthetic that hits the target here; Namely, Dogville is a map, a model of a city with walls drawn on the ground with chalk, names of the street written down on said streets and Thornberry bushes scribbled with chalk on garden area; House and street areas unproportionally small compared to humans walking on them, and just about enough significant pieces of furniture placed to give recognition to locations. City is surrounded by pitch black or blindingly light empty area – depending o the time of the day.

This peculiar concept is introduced smoothly, as the first thing we see is the map of the city; Camera lowers from the bird perspective and finds people habituating on that map. So soon we get used to this that in most intensive moments, we don’t even notice it. Von Trier puts sound and light effects into a good use; Sound effects make opening of the door credible, even though there is no door there; Light effects mimic, for instance, sunlight breaking through clouds well, and occasionally make us see things that aren’t really there.

To add to this stripped concept, Dogville really has only fifteen inhabitants. It’s very easy to get to know them all. Von Trier also remains fateful to hand-held camera and quick cutting; Add through the film, this helps add the dynamism to otherwise static, stage-like quality of the film.

What does this do? It strips characters as well as the city to the level of symbols, where the became easier acceptable presentation of moral questions; Even though film is a drama, and a very emotional one at that, it is it’s stripped presentation that lifts it from the ground and makes it not the story about particular humans in particular time and space, but the story of humanity, timeless and spaceless. It makes us watch at their town as self-sufficient, cut out from the rest of the world, test area for various experiments in morality; Furthermore we see characters as displays of various types of morality – of which the most interesting is Tom, who as a self-proclaimed spokesperson holds a high moral ground because of the need to be superior, and only needs an excuse that would help him keep seeing himself as superior.

There was a webcomic “1/0” ( in which, in similar stripped-down manner, author build a small mock-up world in which he could perform tests in social behavior in a strictly controlled environment, just like scientists observe activities in small ecosystems in order to understand their rules. This excellent, thought-provoking comic ended a couple of years ago but it’s 1000 strips stand as a cult. “Dogville” is similar in many ways, though it concentrates solely on moral problems.

Besides Nicole Kidman and Paul Bethany, several more well known names spice the credit list, including James Caan, Jean-Marc Bar, Blair Brown, Udo Kier (Von Trier’s favourite actor), Chloe Sevigny, Zeljko Ivanek... Film is narrated by appealing voice of John Hurt, giving it almost a contemplative and almost fairy-tale note.

And still, I feel like I didn’t properly describe “Dogville” yet.


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