The three-hour long Dogville is a hugely ambitious movie which plays out across a single, black and white set. There are at most three walls, one car and a handful of chairs to be found in the entire film: outside of that, there is almost nothing besides the actors and some chalk lines on the floor to tell us where houses and gardens are supposed to be.
The theatrical set design is unignorable. It’s the first thing any viewer of Dogville will notice, and it’s a quite brilliant concept. Von Trier stages his movie as if it were a play which the viewer was moving inside of, lending it a spontaneity and strong sense of presence. We feel right up close to Nicole Kidman et al as we watch them perform. But at the same time, this is juxtaposed with jittery camera movements and subtle editing cuts which deliberately strip away the illusion of film.
The effect is incredibly unsettling at first. We are left with almost nothing to cling on to except the actors and their performances, so it helps that these are uniformly fantastic. Nicole Kidman gives an astounding performance that is vulnerable, mysterious and thoughtful in equal measure, while Paul Bettany is also great as the idealistic and conflicted Tom.
By taking away so much, Von Trier asks us to consider more carefully the things that are left. There is lots of symbolism in Dogville, some very overt, some less so. In the prologue, Tom and Ben play checkers but realize they “can’t play the game with a missing piece” right before Grace arrives. When she does, she runs up the mountain but is warned prophetically by Tom that “it’s a very nasty drop”. Fall from grace, anyone?
The religious undertones of the film heighten as it progresses. One later scene finds Nicole Kidman rather allegorically spread out on a bed of apples, signalling temptation. This develops into the central thread of the movie, as Dogville becomes a metaphorical Eden and issues of judgment and community, which germinate in the film’s first hour or so, pull back to a more universal scale.
The setup is fantastic, and the way in which Von Trier entangles each character in his web is fascinating and sometimes excruciating to watch. If I had one slight complaint, though, I do think some of the scenes leading up to Dogville’s gloriously nihilistic ending were a bit too heavy-handed with their philosophizing.
But any minor complaints are eradicated by those closing scenes, and the utterly evil credit sequence which follows. A montage of human poverty and suffering set to David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’? Are you fucking kidding me, Lars?
Dogville’s ideas might not be revolutionary, but the way in which it combines them is. It is something like a cross between Paradise Lost, Ingmar Bergman and Samuel Beckett, with a healthy dose of malicious wit and humour thrown into the mix. It is unlike any other movie I could care to name, and while it is certainly not an easy watch, Dogville is a groundbreaking and ambitious movie from one of the most instantly recognizable artists in modern cinema.