Turning misanthropy into an art form – Lars Von Trier’s ‘Dogville’

16 Oct

The relationship between theatre and cinema has always been a complicated one. In the early days, movies were often little more than filmed plays, and even once sound had kicked in, post The Jazz Singer, many films still drew – and continue to draw –  their material from the stage, from Tod Browning’s Dracula (based on the Balderston & Deane stage adaptation) to William Friedkin’s recent “comeback” movie, Killer Joe (adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play).

At the same time, while it was drawing so many of its ideas from theatre, cinema was also doing its best to kill it off. Countless theatres were shut down and converted into picture houses, and cinema in turn begat television, which was an even bigger nail in the coffin lid of music halls and variety theatres than its big screen predecessor.

And yet theatre didn’t die. There is still something about the intimacy of a theatre, being in the same room as the actors, and – let’s be honest – the possibility of everything going tits up (actors forgetting their lines, somebody falling off the edge of the stage) that make for a more exciting, almost interactive experience than that offered by your TV or your local multiplex.

Punching the person next to you doesn’t count as “interactive”. Not even if you’re watching ‘The Expendables 2’.

Maybe this is why several films have gone out of their way to forget – or at least subvert – over a hundred years of cinema, and emulate the stage. A recent example is Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, much of which was shot within the same disused theatre and has extras moving props and backdrops from scene to scene, but back in 2003 the controversial writer-director Lars Von Trier attempted something even bolder still.

Dogville is ostensibly a tale of small town folk, set during the great depression. The eponymous town is, so we’re led to believe, a dead-end place, at the end of a dirt track, far away from civilisation and the nearest big city. I say “led to believe”, because unlike any other period film you might care to mention (the recent Lawless, for example), the town of Dogville isn’t lovingly created by a Hollywood art department, with clapboard houses and an artfully dilapidated filling station. Instead, every house (and even a pet dog) is drawn out and labelled in chalk on the bare, black floor of a large studio. In this space are just a handful of props (desks, chairs, beds, the very top of a church tower – without the church), and an ensemble cast.

Ok. So far so Bertolt Brecht. And I must admit, when I first heard about the film’s premise, back in 2003, my heart sank. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than watching a film that isn’t really a film but a play pretending to be a film. Or maybe a film pretending to be a play. Or… who cares? I want to watch The Day After Tomorrow.

I don’t care what you think. I bloody love this movie.

It was only while talking to somebody, a few days back, about Von Trier’s film Melancholia, one of my favourite films of 2011, that I remembered Dogville is on Netflix (other movie streaming sites are available) and decided to give it a go.

Its devices and pretenses took a while to get used to, I’ll happily admit that. When characters mime opening and closing doors that simply aren’t there, and yet still make a sound, or when the dog that’s actually the outline of a dog drawn on the ground still barks, your suspension of disbelief is a part of the movie. What surprised me, though, was how quickly that suspension of disbelief is achieved, how effectively you get drawn into the narrative. You know… Just like you would with a play.

The film (or is it a play? Or a film of a play? Or… forget it) tells the story of how the people of Dogville harbour Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious young woman on the run. From whom? We don’t know. But the ominous gunshots overheard by Paul Bettany’s Thomas Edison Jnr (no relation) suggest the Mob.

If there’s one thing Dogville has in spades, it’s foreshadowing. The film is divided up, novelistically, into chapters, each one subtitled with a brief description of what’s coming, and it’s narrated from beginning to end by John Hurt, on particularly sage and gravelly form. As a result, we’re always aware that something terrible is just around the corner, though the film dares – like Melancholia – to make us believe, for just a while, that the inevitable unhappy ending isn’t coming.

I say “inevitable”, because this is a movie by Lars Von Trier, a man who’s turned a pathological hatred of humanity into the backbone of his career. Here, we have the town rally heartwarmingly around young Grace, despite some initial reservations. For a brief moment we think we’re in Frank Capra territory. Hey… This could even mutate into a screwball comedy. The sassy, big town gangster’s moll having to cope with pegging out laundry and milking a cow. And yes, Grace – encouraged by Tom – does her fair share of chores, to help pay her way and earn their trust. But what starts as something altruistic, on both sides, quickly turns sinister.

Not a single man in Dogville can keep his eyes or hands off Grace. Even the eldest son of a family whose children she tutors and babysits misbehaves purely so that she’ll spank him, and hard. The elderly blind neighbour (a brilliant performance by the late Ben Gazzara), to whom she describes the world beyond his windows, quickly gets a little “hands on”. And crotchety apple farmer Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård) takes things to another, more violent and sinister level. Even Tom’s kindness is soon revealed to be something cowardly, and ultimately no less cruel or cynical than that of the others. If the men of the town are shown to be exploitative, they face stiff competition from the womenfolk, who treat Grace like a slave and turn on her when she is at her most vulnerable, and the town’s children switch in no time at all from “cute urchins” to Lord Of The Flies.

Von Trier’s version of ‘It’s A Wonderful’ life ends with the little girl biting her father’s ears off.

So… Given that every single character, even Grace – who spends much of the film as a kind of human punching bag – is shown as being capable of diabolical cruelty, and the film makes most Jacobean tragedy look like The Tweenies: Live, what is there to recommend this movie? Well, for one thing the plot is utterly engrossing. Dogville clocks in at almost 3 hours, and I’m a firm believer that most films struggle to justify a running time over 2, and yet I wasn’t bored for a second. Every scene develops the plot, character, themes or all three; not a moment is wasted. With no scenery, and being shot entirely in a slightly grainy “hi-def” video, the focus is almost entirely on the performances, which are uniformly great. Even in a West End or Broadway blockbuster, it’s unlikely you’d catch Kidman, Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Philip Baker Hall, Gazzara, Skarsgård and a particularly scene-stealing Patricia Clarkson all on the same stage, and yet here they are.

Even the downbeat ending is, like Melancholia, more cathartic than depressing. This isn’t bleakness for its own sake, or nihilism, or the kind of relentless despair you get in so much British cinema.

Dogville is a film by a misanthropic filmmaker, yes, but that doesn’t mean its questions aren’t worth asking, or that its admittedly miserable answers aren’t worth listening to. It’s an experimental film that’s exciting and dramatic, with an engrossing plot and knockout performances, functioning very much like great theatre (Quentin Tarantino commented that had Dogville been written for the stage, Von Trier would have won a Pulitzer), but with close-ups. And you won’t have to pre-order a gin and tonic for the interval before watching it.

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3 Responses to “Turning misanthropy into an art form – Lars Von Trier’s ‘Dogville’”

  1. psychedk December 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    It just came to me that for someone who just finished a Trier movie, I’m feeling remarkable happy! 😉

    I think there are a couple of reasons to this: One is the way Dogville was done. Because it was so much like a play in a theater, I was able to look at it much more objectively and from an artistic viewpoint. Not that you can really compare Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, because despite the common (and recurring) themes of misanthropy, they are very different movies. The stage-like setting worked remarkably well. I never once missed the walls or the doors or the birds you could hear chirping in the trees. It was a brilliant accomplishment!

    And it didn’t drag me through emotional hell like Dancer did. Not that I mind that as such, but there were many more interesting things to focus on in Dogville, the philosophical questions, the setting, the acting, the experimental style. He’s come a long way since his first Dogma movie “The Idiots”, which was about a group of people trying to break out of society’s convention by behaving like mental and physical retards, but ended up looking like a movie about people who liked to be naked all the time. I’ve got internet if I wanted that, thank you. I can honestly say that Dogville is a Trier movie that I like and that I feel good about liking and which didn’t make me hate myself and everyone around me, and which I will actually recommend to others 🙂

    Another thing that came to me while watching Dancer in the Dark, by the way, is that despite how Trier’s movies always show people as weak and cowards and horrible at the end of the day, there is actually also good people around the main characters. Her friend at work who come in at the night shift to help her for free (made me cry). The female prison guard (made me cry even more). She broke my heart. I was happy to see the same actress in Dogville, in fact I was happy to see so many familiar faces. Zeljko Ivanek has poven to be an amazingly versatile actor!

    Anyway, Melancholia is next up!

    • thedaillew December 9, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

      Re: Good characters – Exactly! And even when characters are “bad”, you can understand why. They’re not simply bad for the sake of it. Self serving, perhaps, but there’s a rationale behind it, particularly in ‘Dancer…’, where even the sheriff character does what he does out of – admittedly warped – love for his wife.

      • psychedk December 10, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

        That’s true, I was just discussing with a friend how his characters are not “evil”, they’re afraid, they’re desperate, coerced, cowards, and they’re aware of what they do and they’re ashamed. They’re very multilayered. The sheriff is a great example of how you can sympathise with a character even though what he does is very very very wrong. What a *great* performance by David Morse there.

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