Credit: Lionsgate
by Jake Tropila Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Dogville — Lars von Trier

April 25, 2024

In keeping with his reputation for being a filmmaker whose work is as celebrated as it is reviled, Danish wunderkind and perennial enfant terrible Lars von Trier is nothing if not audacious. A central figure behind the Dogme 95 movement — in which directors were required to follow a strict set of guidelines in order to “purify their craft,” e.g. no artificial lighting, all sound must be diegetic, etc. — von Trier emerged as the helmer behind such notable works as the Europa trilogy, Breaking the Waves, and his much-lauded Kingdom series, which was unceremoniously canceled at the end of its second season and left with multiple characters’ lives hanging in the balance; that is, until by miracle a third season came about 25 years later and gave it the proper conclusion it deserved, à la Twin Peaks: The Return. The early 2000s proved to be an even more prolific era for The Notorious L.V.T. At the turn of the millennium, he debuted Dancer in the Dark at the Cannes Film Festival, where he was honored with the prestigious Palme d’Or. In 2003, he released The Five Obstructions, a collaborative documentary between von Trier and filmmaker Jørgen Leth, in which the former challenged the latter to remake one of Leth’s short films over and over again with an increasingly demanding set of limitations, such as reducing each shot to twelve frames, or making it entirely animated.

It’s this impish behavior that largely defines von Trier today, who seemingly goes out of his way to court controversy for the sake of feeling mischievous. This practice, as well as the context of Dogme 95 and The Five Obstructions, are all important to understand Dogville, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its U.S. release this week. The first of von Trier’s self-described “Land of Opportunities” trilogy — which has thus far only seen one other film released, 2005’s ManderlayDogville is set in the fictional eponymous mountain town, circa Depression-era America. As told by John Hurt’s magnificent narration, the denizens of Dogville, consisting of an impressive ensemble cast that includes Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård, Lauren Bacall, Chloë Sevigny, Philip Baker Hall, and Ben Gazzara, all enjoy a quiet, good-natured life of structure and routine that is one day uprooted by the arrival of interloper Grace, played by Nicole Kidman. Having apparently fled from a gang of violent mobsters, the town, led by Bettany’s optimistic Tom, cautiously accepts Grace into their world, indoctrinating her into their daily chores and exploiting this new set of helping hands. While fruitful at first, the system they’ve devised begins to show cracks, ultimately collapsing under its own design. It’s evident that this is von Trier’s indictment on the abuse and neglect of America’s underclass, in which the town’s wary acceptance of Grace may have ultimately doomed them all. Sounds like pretty standard allegorical fare, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. Here’s the thing about Dogville: it looks like no other town in America. In fact, it looks like no other town seen in any other film, ever. From our very first view of the setting, an impressively staged overhead shot — actually a composite of over one hundred individual shots — it immediately becomes apparent that Dogville is no more than a series of chalk outlines on a stage floor, with nary a structure in sight. There’s a handful of furniture, the wooden frame of a nearby mine, a lone rockface in the corner, and one character does drive a car in and out of town, but everything else one would expect to see is virtually non-existent. The effect is akin to watching a filmed theatrical production, but even this feels disingenuous as a description because, with theatre, one can at least catch glimpses of the wings flanking the stage as a makeshift boundary. Not so, here. Dogville exists in a complete void, with day and night, respectively, signified by either a blinding bright white or inky black space of nothingness. Furthermore, von Trier takes this self-imposed obstruction to an extreme through his canny sound design, having his actors mimic opening doors and adding the accompanying foley work on the soundtrack. An unseen dog is fed and barks at newcomers. Rainfall is even heard at one point, and yet not a single drop is seen. And then it dawns on the viewer: this will be the entire movie, and there are nearly three hours of it to go. Welcome to Lars von Trier’s masterpiece.

Thankfully, Dogville is by no means an interminable slog to get through. Divvied up into nine chapters, the runtime surprisingly zips on by, thanks largely in part to the ace performances of the ensemble and von Trier’s compelling narrative instincts. The director is no stranger to putting his character through the wringer, and Grace is no exception: she’s overworked, mentally broken down, sexually assaulted, and eventually spends an extended chunk of film chained to a rock so as to not skip town. It can be difficult to endure, but it’s always fascinating and never boring. For a man who has famously never set foot in America, von Trier could be accused of being hypocritical in his heavy-handed messaging, but even he gets the last laugh when the end credits are set over a montage of destitute-looking Americans while David Bowie’s “Young Americans” blares on the soundtrack. Brilliant or pretentious, call it what you want, but Dogville is astonishingly bold and a force to be reckoned with, and proof that even the bluntest of instruments can make a hell of an impact.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon