Movies with much initial hype are in constant danger of being unable to live up to expectation. Dogville, is such a film of daringly independent, but ultimately disappointing, beauty.
Dogville is filmed wholly in a dark stage, wherein the town is painted, map-like, in mercilessly straight white outlines of houses, the main street, the dog. The harsh and shifting stage lights, multiple shadows, the minimal but very present props and set, lend the film and extremely theatrical quality.
Grace (Nicole Kidman) appears, mysteriously, after a string of gunshots, in a poor depression era town, high in the Rockies. In order for the town of Dogville to shield her from the mobsters who seek her she must earn the trust of each town-member individually. Her ally in this endeavor is Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), an aspiring writer/philosopher and jobless, rich boy, drifter. Amid protests that everyone is doing fine without extra help, Grace spends an hour each day helping each family, duties, that range from childcare to apple picking to shop-keeping. Everyone becomes quite accustomed to her service and she is allowed to stay. But all her kindness and toil are rewarded continuously with exploitation and anger. When she finally tries to escape, the townspeople's cruel humanity reins her back in. From here metaphor is left more by the wayside and she is literally shackled to a heavy metal weight that restricts her movement. Being a secluded mountain town, she is effectively imprisoned. Throughout her stay Grace and Tom fall in uncomfortable love and the inevitable climax comes from Tom's hasty betrayal, and love of the profound.
Dogville's biggest triumph is in its ambiguity, especially behind the façade of a supposedly simple allegorical or moral fable. This parable aspect is further emphasized by the urbane and slightly fatherly condescending narration by John Hurt. But though Von Trier's vision of Americans is disturbing, and is liable to put one of the defensive, his ambivalence throughout the film, as well as his ending credits of poor Americans in sad, exploitative pictures, juxtaposed with happy young American music, leaves one with a decidedly less clear version of the story.
Dogville's clearest pitfall is the same thing.
Its pure self-consciousness, or perhaps other-consciousness comes off easily as,, obvious, pretentious and stagy, but as bland and unmoving. By creating characters with so much "humanity" as to have none, not only did I lose interest in the excruciating length of the film but rather saw more and more of Von Trier in the characters he so despises. Well, strongly, ambivalently despises at least. And in this way I became more and more annoyed with Dogville's ability to be wishy-washy while being so intense and filled with hatred, anger, moral superiority and all manner of strong emotions and lessons. It was pure philosophizing on emotions without ever letting one escape. A stoic Vulcan play, and just as alien, whether to Americans, Danes, or anyone else.
The DVD and Audio
This is a DVD where the immensity or humbleness of your equipment is less important than the original filming. With the set already a nearly blank canvas, Dogville is free to play with the camera angles and studio lights in skillful and amazing ways. Use of shadow was in plenty, but Von Trier was able to limit its multitudes to only those on purpose, which is not an easy task with some of the "sunny" scenes, blinding from above. Weather, in general, is in full effect in Dogville; it snows, it fogs, it is dark or light. The blank stage serves to involve the audiences in the fairy tale.
The soundtrack is softly appropriate, with each shift in volume so perfectly placed it is almost heartless. Expectant silences followed by much louder crashes and movements work exquisitely and would have the automatic volume control on your television going nuts.
The extras on this disc are limited to audio commentary by Director Lars Von Trier and Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. For in depth looks scene by scene these commentaries can be quite useful and will surely keep you in front of the screen for twice as many hours. However, they are often slow and there is no exception here. For a film I had trouble sitting through the first time, on its own, the audio commentary is rather painful and verbose, even if they do laugh and snicker often, which is almost frightening, considering the film's content.
Nevertheless, I am also jealous that we did not get the interviews on this DVD that the Brits did. The Confession Box featurette goes behind the scenes and have confessional style interviews with the actors, deleted scenes, and we get none of it. The website, which is a stylistic triumph, is the most interesting extra associated with this film, and that you can view for free.
I embrace the tale of the ugly American and probably wouldn't make too much out of one man's lopsided enthrallment with a place he's never seen. And I actually like most of Von Trier's work. So let's just get that out of the way first.
As an academic exercise Dogville was quite worth watching. It's the kind of movie to drink wine with, and argue over, with professors. It's a graduate student's idea of a good time. But it will never be fun. It will never even be visceral. If Dancer in the Dark made me weep with the fullness of fear, dread, and love, Dogville left me in dead apathy, angry and hurt if only I could care. Perhaps that is triumph enough for Von Trier's global audience.