PRINT March 2004


Lars von Trier’s Dogville

THE DOGME 95 “Vow of Chastity” notwithstanding, purity isn’t high on Lars von Trier’s agenda. Dogme’s refusal of certain resources and techniques is aimed less at establishing a “pure” filmic practice than at stimulating greater awareness and more conscious use of conventions. Strict rules can be liberating rather than oppressive, so long as they haven’t hardened into multiplex clichés. Although his new feature, Dogville, isn’t a Dogme film, von Trier has nevertheless imposed strict constraints on himself, shooting entirely on a soundstage. The set consists mainly of outlines and blueprints painted on the studio floor, with a few pieces of furniture, a car, a shopwindow, and a church spire suspended in midair. Dogville is blatantly virtual.

Into this disembodied shadow of a poor 1930s Rocky Mountain village bursts Grace (Nicole Kidman), who is on the run from gangsters. Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), a local would-be writer concerned with the moral state of his community, persuades the inhabitants of Dogville to let her stay, initially for a two-week trial period, in exchange for helping various townspeople (the blind man in denial, the hypochondriac former doctor, the simpleminded truck driver) with their daily chores. Grace wins them over, but when “wanted” posters start appearing, the reward ever increasing, her exile in Dogville takes a turn for the worse. The wanted signs exacerbate the townfolk’s sense of the risk they are running by harboring Grace, and they increase her duties in recompense. Finally they outfit her with an iron dog collar chained to a discarded flywheel, and the male inhabitants take to sexually abusing her. This rather predictable development is spelled out in cruel detail, emphasizing once again that von Trier’s approach to narrative is also based on constraints. He typically shows how events are propelled, almost mechanically, by circumstances that are either self-created by or inflicted on the characters. And in Dogville, what appeared to have been inflicted on a passive character turns out to have been largely self-created.

Dogville abounds with references to art from the interwar years—even aside from the character of Tom, von Trier’s parody of a Depression-era writer obsessed with “illustrating” profound moral truths about Man. During the closing credits, with David Bowie’s “Young Americans” blasting, a parade of WPA photos (as well as more recent pictures of the same ilk) marches across the screen. Here one finally sees photographic representations of the American scene, rather than a set. Dogville’s visual emphasis on the fact of its having been shot on a soundstage brings to mind film and film criticism of the ’30s, when the “talkie,” with its unwieldy new technology, made location work difficult and fears of regression to an “unfilmic,” theatrical approach abounded among the more “advanced” critics. However, the set of Dogville wouldn’t work in a theater, as it is meant to be seen from many angles, not least from above, and von Trier’s mobile camera traverses it.

There is, of course, a generic Brechtian feel to the way in which this set sabotages the reality effect; more specific is von Trier’s appropriation and transformation of the revenge fantasy in Brecht and Weil’s song “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera. Whereas Jenny only dreams of killing her oppressors with the aid of pirates, Grace actually does so—with the aid of the gangsters summoned to Dogville by the townspeople, eager to collect the reward and above all get rid of Grace because of the destructive forces she has unleashed in the community. The mob boss turns out to be Grace’s estranged father (wanting to break with his world, she had sought refuge among the simple people, hoping to lead their supposedly healthier and morally superior life). In a chilling conversation with dad, Grace tries to excuse the people of Dogville by saying that they tried the best they could under difficult conditions, but she finally has to admit that their best doesn’t meet her standards—and to use lower standards would be patronizing. The town must perish in (suggested) flames, its inhabitants must die. Only the dog, Moses, may live.

Not all of Dogville’s references and allusions have a ’30s flavor: The film’s structure and pompous-ironical voice-over (and, less directly, its disenchanted view of human relations) are derived from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), reputedly von Trier’s favorite film. There is also a Kubrickian dimension to von Trier’s creating a filmic America outside America. Although Barry Lyndon was shot principally on location in various European countries, from the early ’60s on Kubrick typically built elaborate sets that allowed him to shoot films that are set elsewhere largely in England. In a sense this is merely a continuation of Hollywood’s longstanding practice of re-creating the world in the studio and on the back lot, but Kubrick’s films tend to use these simulacra to create an unreal and uncanny atmosphere (the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the New York of Eyes Wide Shut). Von Trier takes Kubrick’s unreality a step further by stripping the set down to lines on the floor and a handful of props.

The fact that von Trier has been roundly chastised for remaining in Europe to make a film about a country to which he’s never been would seem to indicate that some contemporary film critics subscribe to a “post-studio” ideology of site-specificity: The filmmaker should not create soundstage simulacra but work on location (i.e., “on-site”). In visual art, the rise of post-studio practice is, of course, associated with the ’60s—with artists like Robert Smithson who displaced the production of art from the artist’s studio to various sites external to it. But such sites, and the artists’ interventions at them, still have to be made public, as Smithson was keenly aware, by art media such as galleries or magazines. His “non-site” works functioned as three-dimensional “maps” of the site in the gallery space, and he typically presented photographic documentation of the sites not only in exhibitions but even more crucially in magazine pieces. In the case of Spiral Jetty, 1970, Smithson also adopted film to re-present the site in a cinematic non-site. Is Dogville, then, merely a regressive return to the movie studio, akin to late- ’70s neo-expressionist painters’ return to the traditional artist’s studio?

Since Europeans are continuously surrounded by reified media images of the United States, one might expect an independent European filmmaker who chooses an American subject to go “over there” and wrest something worthwhile from his firsthand confrontation with American life. But directors who have done so—Wim Wenders, for example—seem over whelmed by the very phenomenon Smithson described in “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” his meta-travelogue on mock-monumental sites published in these pages in 1967: The concrete site is always already mediated, a ready-made image to be rephotographed. “Noon-day sunshine cinemaized the site, turning the bridge and the river into an over-exposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph,” Smithson famously wrote. “The sun became a monstrous light-bulb that projected a detached series of ‘stills’ through my Instamatic into my eye.” Whereas Smithson knew how to reframe these images, how to tilt the camera in an oblique way at the already mediated reality, directors like Wenders merely reproduce clichés.

Von Trier took the opposite route: to create a studio non-site and effect a second dislocation and decontextualization of floating signifiers of ’30s America (Depression, gangsters, socially conscious writers). Crumbling buildings that might have been photographed by Walker Evans become disembodied, imaginary “monuments.” The result is obviously oneiric and perhaps as European as it is American, just as the drama of Grace’s asylum in Dogville has obvious contemporary resonances in the EU no less than the US. In any case, this utterly unreal non-site, which transforms Kubrickian dream space through Brechtian procedures, provides a space for a self-critical imagination that investigates the ways in which it is shaped by various kinds of constraints and conventions. Has Dogville replaced Rome as the Eternal City?

Sven Lütticken is an Amsterdam-based critic.