I wrote another review without spoilers last week, and I have more to say about “Dogville.”
A quick plot synopsis: Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) arrives in Dogville, pursued by gangsters. Throughout the story, law enforcement officers are looking for her. Everyone thinks she is in danger and hiding from gangsters and the law. Meanwhile Tom Edison Jr (Bettany) is an aspiring writer – who hasn’t produced, but is full of ideas about moral rearmament and community values. He has the typical liberal intellectual’s opinion of the common man – the common man is a pretty reasonable guy – or might be if he knew as much as the intellectual, listened to reason and lived up to expectations.
Tom convinces the townspeople to grant refuge to Grace. She will work for her keep, a half hour or hour in each household in the small town. She will prove her worth and people will learn to trust her. Tom wants to observe his plan in action and to write about it.
Grace is a true idealist naif. She buys into to Tom’s idea. At first no one wants her, and then she becomes indispensible, and she is exploited and abused in every way. The abuse comes as hostility from Lauren Bacall’s character, ingratitude by others, consistent exploitation of her labour and eventually sexual abuse from every man in town except Edison. It starts with the man who has an apple orchard, who is married to Vera (Clarkson) and has a pile of grubby kids. He insists on sex with Grace as a sign of “respect” for him and his work. When Vera finds out, she blames Grace, and exacts an emotionally draining punishment. Grace has been collecting porcelain figures to decorate her shack, and Vera starts to break them. As Vera starts, she promises not to break any more if Grace can hold back tears. Grace finds that she has become attached to these little signs of her hope for independence and love, and she cannot hold back her tears.
Grace tries to escape, but is betrayed and brought back. She continues to love Tom, but refuses to have sex with him. She promises to consummate their relationship on the outside, where they are both free, but Tom can’t let go of Dogville and his wish to write a book. In the end, he has been abusing Grace for his own ends too.
Tom deals with all the conflict in Dogville by calling the gangsters. The leader of the gangsters is Grace’s father (played by James Caan). It turns out that Grace had run away because she did not want to assume her role in the gang. Her father had pursued her angrily and his men had shot at her, but he has forgiven her. He offers her the choice of staying in Dogville, leaving freely or assuming his power. There is a very intense discussion of ideals of power, morality and rights. Grace’s father asks her why she continues to submit to abuse, in the name her own incorrect ideals, when she has rights too. She elects to assume his power, and orders the slaughter of the inhabitants of Dogville. She intervenes when Vera’s children are being killed. She makes the same offer to Vera, for her children, that Vera had made to her.
There was some talk, when this movie was introduced at Cannes last year, that it was a piece of European art-house anti-Americanism. I don’t think that’s true, although the movie brings out the dark side of America as well as any number of movies by American film-makers.
The arrival of a powerful, angry father offering power to a child who has tried to live by “higher” principles in world that abuses her is evocative, although I am not sure that Von Trier was making any particular systematic argument. It seems to me that Von Trier was making a series of points about idealism, realism and “goodness.” In the end, no one was good, and everyone, even Grace, was a gangster. There is no good or graceful way to exercise power. Justice is not based on kindness – it is based on power.
There is a theological dimension, because a good deal of modern liberal Christian theology looks at how the goodness of Jesus and the early Christians challenged society and provoked violence. I’m not sure whether Von Trier was intending to weigh in, but his movie makes an interesting counterpoint to some theologians. I can say the same thing about how Von Trier has answered the vague movement for peace and goodness that idolizes the Dalai Lama, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
I was really caught by the scenes in which the apple-grower wants Grace to show respect for him by having sex. It is brilliant illustration of how the concept of respect has been distorted into a rationalization for the abuse of power. Respect should mean attention and consideration – but not necessarily obedience. But in modern usage respect seems to mean cheerful compliance with the needs of the powerful.
I thought it was a very rich and challenging movie – but it is still a specialty interest.