Lars von Trier is quick to set up his motivation for Dogville, an austere Brechtian critique of an unjust society, via a self-reflexive bit of wisdom: “I think there’s a lot this country has forgotten, I just try to refresh folks’ memories by way of illustration.” Pursued by gangsters and gunfire, Grace (Nicole Kidman) arrives in the film’s quiet, eponymous hamlet. The town’s young philosopher, Tom (Paul Bettany), hides her inside a mineshaft before introducing her to the townsfolk. After slowly winning everyone’s affection over the course of two weeks as their indentured servant, Grace becomes one of their own. But the denizens of this impoverished burb are quick to bare their teeth when it appears that the good Grace is not who she seems. And after being dutifully tortured by the Dogville clan, Grace reveals herself as a force majeure to be reckoned with.
If you can’t go to America, bring America to you. Because the reclusive von Trier has never stepped a foot inside the United States (he’s afraid to fly), and because this twisted allusion to Our Town takes place in a fictional, metaphorical town nestled somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, its easy to see why the diagrammatic Dogville has been accused of anti-Americanism. But that’s to dangerously underplay the film’s European influences and its universal dissection of the human condition. Dogville is inspired in part by a song from Kurt Weill and Brecht’s famous Threepenny Opera and shares more than a passing resemblance to Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children and The Good Woman of Setzuan, which Brecht wrote during his exile from Nazi Germany and set in Communist China.
Brecht’s theater thumbed its nose at expressionism, and in his essay “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,” he laid much of the foundation for a radical aesthetic that actively rejected Western forms of realism. Von Trier is very much a disciple of Brecht’s, using Dogville’s chalk outlines and non-existent walls to estrange the audience from his material and to help us develop a more critical, observant relationship to the film’s themes. This is exactly why the film’s rape scenes aren’t as disturbing as, say, the torture mechanisms at work within Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark (which similarly used song and dance as a distancing effect). Brecht observed, “We see this theater as uncommonly precious, its portrayal of human passions as schematized, its idea of society as rigid and wrong-headed.” In stripping their material of all artifice, Brecht and von Trier leave behind only the clockwork of human cruelty.
From the gooseberries in Ma Ginger’s (Lauren Bacall) garden to the porcelain figurines (German Hummels) Grace collects throughout her stay in Dogville, everything in the film is a symbolic gesture of some kind. Narrated by John Hurt, this acerbic “illustration” of a small town’s curious notions of entitlement unspools as a Christian allegory by way of Mark Twain or Dr. Seuss. “It’s got to be hard, or it’s not punishment,” says one of Vera’s (Patricia Clarkson) odious children, asking Grace for a smack-bottom and ghoulishly foreshadowing the physical and sexual abuse she’s subjected to after she’s perceived as a threat by the townsfolk. What with all the repeated references to characters wanting to protect their community, or the hypocritical Tom stating that he is there “to do the thinking” for Grace, it’s easy to read Dogville as a post-9/11 satire of American oppression and our country’s misguided notions of Christian charity.
When the film’s black mamie (Cleo King) castigates Grace, there’s no mistaking the irony of this ritual of abuse. Von Trier seems to ask: What makes this classic American victim a victimizer herself? These are the kind of questions this radical, minimalist primer beckons the spectator to ask and decipher from the bits and pieces of the film’s mise-en-scène. Dogville’s condescending stance is a deliberate one, and it’s all over the god-like overheads that evoke the same “sense of mastery” implicit in one character’s preference for the symmetry of two eyes over the one eye of the mythical Cyclops. For all his harsh criticisms and depictions of cruel and inhospitable behavior, von Trier affords some sympathy for his rabid dogs. If the film’s American culture can be likened to a Trojan Horse, then who’s to blame for the evil disguised within when all is said and done?
Because Tom creates and repeatedly reinvents Dogville’s moral litmus test, the character’s full name, Tom Edison Jr., is not without its allegorical implications. Tom is in many ways the commander-in-chief of the film’s Trojan Horse, and if he is a doppelganger for von Trier, then the director seemingly reserves some of the harshest judgment for himself. An impervious von Trier pits Tom’s idealist philosophy against that of the hopeless pessimist played by Stellan Skarsgård. Both are reprehensible in their own way, except Tom (here a symbol for a pretentious intelligentsia) uses love and deceit to control Grace, and, in the end, is every bit the monster as the neighbors he morally condescends to throughout the film. (Unlike the privileged Rex Reed—who ruined the film’s ending in his Toronto Film Festival article “Trapped in Dogville” for the New York Observer—we’re going to alert you to the minor spoilers that lie ahead.)
So what’s to be the made of Dogville’s cynical, final act of vengeance by a group of exterminating angels, which is as punishing as the titular town’s hate? Though Grace’s final conquest can be read as a campaign for cultural euthanasia, the film’s devastating final credits—which juxtapose David Bowie’s “Young American” with photojournalistic memories of American underdevelopment—are unmistakably sympathetic. Von Trier understands that the root of American aggression may very well be our arrogant elite’s oppression of the culturally underprivileged, which has bred ignorant and isolationist attitudes throughout the ages. Contempt breeds more contempt, so to speak. “It’s got to be universal,” says a confused Tom at one point, widening the director’s political perspective. In the end, Dogville is less anti-American than it is, quite simply, anti-oppression.