Dogville (2003)

Dir. Lars von Trier

Written by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany


Dogville, in which a stranger named Grace (Kidman), stumbles into a remote town in the mountains of Colorado, where she is reluctantly accepted into a cloistered society and discovers that behind many acts of human kindness there lies an avaricious motive, may be Lars von Trier’s defining masterpiece. The film marries the Danish auteur’s dark thematic explorations with the most radical example of his challenging and ever-evolving visual style. It’s a film that has challenged me since I first viewed it shortly after its release, sometime during my freshman year of college. Like the other von Trier films that I’ve written about, Dogville is a difficult film to “enjoy,” due to its dark and depressing subject matter, but it stands out as a startling and immediate piece of art. The film strips away the artifices of traditional cinema, replacing them with a starkly minimalist visual aesthetic that utilizes chalk outlines on a soundstage to block out its only setting. This extreme minimalism allows von Trier to focus in on the film’s narrative and dig deep into the roots of human nature, revealing a pessimistic, challenging world view that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who is familiar with the director’s oeuvre. Dogville is a profound film, seeking to explore aspects of the human condition rarely considered, and despite its barren aesthetic, it’s often a beautiful film. It’s an emotionally taxing, mentally exhausting experience to watch, but its host of strong performances and von Trier’s artful directorial choices make for an engaging, unforgettable film.

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Dogville is a tale told in nine elliptical chapters and a prologue, in which we are first introduced to the residents of Dogville, Colorado, a mining town hard hit by the Great Depression. Our guide to the town is young Tom Edison (Bettany), a self-styled writer who has rarely put pen to paper, but who doesn’t shy away from trying to inflict his own morality and high-mindedness on the often resistant townsfolk of Dogville. Early in the film, Tom is walking the town’s main street at night when he comes upon a stranger, Grace, who is on the run from a gang that Tom had previously heard firing shots in the valley below the town. Tom agrees to shelter her, but he must first convince the rest of Dogville’s residents to keep Grace secreted away from harm in their village, and many of them are less than eager to put their own safety and tranquility on the line to harbor a stranger, particularly one who may be dangerous herself. However, they eventually consent to offer Grace a trial period, provided that she earn her keep in the town by doing housework and chores for each of its residents. This arrangement continues well for some time, as Grace proves herself to be an asset to the town, and nearly all of the townsfolk begin to warm to her presence, particularly Tom with whom Grace begins a tentative romance. However, the situation begins to become more tenuous and dissolve when Grace’s pursuers, as well as the local police who are in the pocket of the gang, come sniffing around town, raising the stakes for the people of Dogville. Their initial welcoming attitude begins to gradually turn to resentment and suspicion of Grace, as the townsfolk’s true nature starts to reveal itself as they inflict an escalating series of cruelties on the stranger.

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This is von Trier at his most radically experimental, as he’s fully abandoned the realist tendencies of the Dogme 95 movement that he helped to spark nearly a decade earlier, creating a fully stylized and symbolic, if completely minimalist, visual aesthetic. Von Trier has mentioned that his choice to adopt such radical and theatrical staging for his film was an attempt to strip away the distractions of setting so that audiences would focus on the characters, the narrative, and the performances. Another side effect of this chosen visual aesthetic is that it makes the film immediately engaging because it is such a radical departure from the visual presentation of any sort of traditional narrative film. Taking a page from famed theatrical provocateur Bertolt Brecht’s playbook, and staying true to his own theory that cinema should be “as a rock in your shoe,” von Trier presents the audience with a set of distancing effects that counter-intuitively work to foster audience engagement and identification. As there is little to recognize about the physical setting of the film, audiences have no choice but to deeply and personally invest themselves in the characters and their highly-charged chamber dramas. In Brechtian theory, this would then cause the audience member to internalize the performances and undergo a sort of self-reflection, unearthing heretofore unknown truths. As a highly analytical and critical filmmaker, von Trier no doubt is seeking the same sort of agitation and self-examination in his audience, and if they take the lessons and attitudes of the characters in Dogville to heart, the truths that they find reflected may be challenging, to say the least.

Perhaps this is why Dogville is such a difficult and divisive film, appearing on many best and worst films of the year lists when it was released. The suppositions that it makes about human nature, and in particular, about the American national spirit, are confrontational and challenging, if not down-right appalling. Dogville finds von Trier at perhaps his most misanthropic, sometimes giving the impression that he sees the characters (and perhaps even the actors portraying them) in this morality fable as specimens to be studied, rather than humanistic equals. The coldness that he shows towards his subjects is reflected in the coldness that is revealed to be at the core of their beings. Dogville is a film without any “good guys,” where no good deed goes unpunished, and the strong ultimately lord over the weak and powerless. The quickness with which the townsfolk turn to abusing, and taking advantage of Grace is horrifying, and the savagery to which they descend is shocking, but to von Trier, those traits are true to the selfish, rapacious nature of the human animal. We have seen before in his films that his worldview is bleak and uncompromising, but in Dogville there are no pure souls, no Selma or Bess, to point towards the existence of decency or goodness in the world. When Grace finally gains her comeuppance on the townsfolk and watches them murdered and the town burned, there’s little satisfaction in the revenge for the audience, because it is we that she is dispatching of, at the same time that it is we who are gleeful in the killing. Audiences are indicted as killers regardless of whom they choose to identify with, and are left with a preponderance of difficult questions about their own position on the nature of human kindness and charity.

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Even in a film so bleak, however, and so coldly antihuman, there are many moments of warmth, primarily supplied by the excellent performances of the cast. Although there are several great performances in Dogville, Nicole Kidman owns this movie with her performance as Grace. Released at the same time that she was starring in prestige period films such as Cold Mountain and The Hours, for which she won an Academy Award, Kidman’s performance in Dogville seems to sometimes get overlooked. Perhaps it is the film’s overall divisiveness that led to Kidman not receiving much mainstream consideration for awards or commendations, but what vibrancy there is in the film is directly related to her performance. Kidman is radiant in the film, both in her performance and physically, as she is often shot in golden light that reflects in her red hair and seems to make her personage glow. Early in the film, her kindness is palpable and it begins to seep into the dark crevices of Dogville, inflicting itself onto the town’s hardened residents. The film also requires Kidman to demonstrate extreme range as an actor, as her character is taken on an extreme emotional journey over the course of the film, experiencing and embodying fear, happiness, humble service, love, distress, resignation, shame, and moral vengefulness, among many other complex and difficult to convey emotional states. Though the performance may not be as singularly memorable as Bjork’s in Dancer in the Dark, Kidman’s Grace is equally as impressive. The performance is less outwardly expressive and showy, more inwardly-focused and nuanced.

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Kidman headlines an impressive assemblage of talent, with several other standouts in supporting roles. Von Trier is often able to find himself working with some of Europe and America’s finest actors, and though they don’t always find the experience of working with the famously irritable and demanding director to be a pleasant one, he usually draws great performances out of already talented actors. Dogville is no exception, with famous character actors such as Ben Gazzara and Philip Baker Hall turning in great performances as lonely, but ultimately reprehensible, older men, alongside film legend Lauren Bacall whose Ma Ginger at first seems to be a sweet, if reclusive, matriarch, but whose vitriol becomes evident by the film’s end. Of course von Trier regular, Stellan Skarsgård, makes an appearance as Chuck, a hard working father who resents Grace for what she represents as an outsider who had previously enjoyed a life of luxury. Chuck is the member of the town who harbors the most outward animosity towards Grace, and Skarsgård plays him terrifyingly well, embodying seething resentment and a physical type of malice. John Hurt’s familiar, soothing voice is used to great effect as the film’s narrator, helping to set the scene, and providing near-ironic counterpoint through his calm voiceover narration of events that are rapidly descending into cruelty. In fact, nearly all of the film’s supporting cast stand out in some way, with Kidman’s co-lead, Paul Bettany, being one of the more forgettable aspects of the film. He is fine as the naïve, moralizing Tom, but he doesn’t really add much to the film through his performance. I don’t say that to diminish Bettany’s performance, but more to point out how difficult it is to stand out among a field of such accomplished actors.

Von Trier handles the ensemble cast masterfully, though. His earlier films were often focused on highly intimate and personal narratives that centered on a dynamic female protagonist, and though Dogville certainly is that, the film sees von Trier expanding that focus to provide the sort of character depth and interiority that he previously explored on the individual level to a society. He allows the audience to get to know the citizens of Dogville gradually, affording each one enough screen time to develop their own personality, and to properly inform their motivations and behaviors. He’s brought in actors intuitive enough to make the most of small gestures or bits of terse dialogue, and the result is a town that actually feels as if it could exist. In spite of its lack of visual specificity, Dogville is clearly mapped out, quite literally, and the interactions and relationships existing between its residents feel true to life. Their petty disputes, and their over-familiarity with one another will ring true to anyone who has spent time living in a small town, and perhaps this is what makes their monstrous turn in the film’s second half all the more disturbing. The people of Dogville are people that we, the audience, know. Again, they are us. Dogville is a studied portrait of the callousness of modern human society, from the perspective of a filmmaker who often doesn’t include himself in the larger strictures of human society, and though its scope may be played out on a more violent and even Biblical scale, it hits the nail on the head at the rottenness that is often at the core of people’s petty slights and swipes at their neighbors.

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Dogville is not a film for most people. It’s too avant-garde, too pretentious, too graphic, too nihilistic and misanthropic, to really cater to many audiences. Obviously, I am in the camp that considers it a masterpiece, which really shouldn’t be surprising given my affinity for von Trier’s other films. I don’t necessarily agree with the film’s totally bleak take on human nature and society, but I appreciate its provocative stance and von Trier’s willingness to be totally unrelenting in his vision, both aesthetically and in terms of his presented worldview. I enjoy films like this, ones that force their spectators to question aspects of their own identity or their own nature. I think that for every film that celebrates the beauty of life or of art, there should be another artfully challenging those assumptions and presenting necessary counterpoint. Life certainly isn’t all sunshine and flowers, and neither should our art be. Though I don’t recommend that anyone, myself included, watch Dogville often, I do think that it’s a film that people should at least try to engage with once in their life. It’s a stylistically audacious work of art that seeks to shake viewers out of their complacency and challenge their core beliefs. It’s a good thing to be shaken up from time to time.

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Dir. Lars von Trier

Written by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge

Breaking the Waves is one of the films in my collection that I have watched the least. I picked the film up on Bluray a few years ago during one of Barnes and Nobles’s periodic half price Criterion Collection sales. I have been following the career of Lars von Trier since seeing Dancer in the Dark shortly after it was released, but to that point I had never seen Breaking the Waves, one of his most celebrated films, so I decided to take a chance on the purchase. I watched the movie shortly after buying it, and I was very impressed by its emotionally affective morality fable, and by Emily Watson’s heartbreaking performance as Bess, a naïve young woman who sacrifices everything in an attempt to please and heal her ailing husband. Since that initial viewing, I have only watched Breaking the Waves one other time before watching it for this project, simply because, like many of von Trier’s films, it is an incredibly difficult watch. The film’s beauty and artistic merit are without question, but its subject matter and emotional brutality make for an uncomfortable viewing experience.

Set in a small village on the northern coast of Scotland in the early 1970s, Breaking the Waves begins with the wedding of Bess (Watson) and Jan (Skarsgård). The Calvinist elders of the village don’t approve of this marriage as they are distrustful of outsiders, and Jan, a Scandinavian who has come to their village to work on an oil rig, is certainly an outsider. The tall, hard-drinking Jan, and Bess, who is devoutly religious and meek, make for an odd couple, but their marriage seems genuinely happy. Bess matches her religious devotion with a new-found devotion to her husband, and begins to find herself in a new context through Jan’s introduction of a previously forbidden sexuality into her life. When their honeymoon phase comes to an end and Jan has to go back to work on the rig, Bess comforts herself in prayer, giving voice to her own wants and concerns as well as God’s responses. While at sea, Jan suffers a head injury and is returned to Bess immobilized and confined to a hospital bed. Possessing of a childlike faith, Bess believes that her prayers for Jan’s early return from the oil rig are the cause of his injury, and, feeling guilty, she seeks a way that she might be able to heal him. Bess also begins to believe that she and Jan have a metaphysical connection, through both action and prayer. Jan suggests that Bess take another lover and then describe their sexual encounters to him, telling her that if she does this, it will help him to get better. Bess secretly begins prostituting herself, hoping in vain that through her debasement, the man she loves will be healed. Though her friends and family, including her sister-in-law (Cartlidge) who is also Jan’s nurse, caution her against her actions, insisting that she is being used by Jan, Bess persists, hoping that she can bring about a miracle.

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Von Trier often groups his films into sets and trilogies, and Breaking the Waves is the first film in what he calls his “Golden Heart” trilogy. It is followed by The Idiots, which I haven’t seen, and Dancer in the Dark, which I will be writing about for this project in time. These films are all influenced by a fairytale that von Trier read as a child in which a little girl is lost in the woods and gives away everything she owns to those who are needier than she is, and they all explore themes of exploitation, martyrdom, and absolution. Though he experienced critical success throughout Europe from the beginning of his career, Breaking the Waves marks von Trier’s first crossover success, with the film receiving near-unanimous praise from critics, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, as well as garnering an Academy Award nomination for its star. The film also marks the genesis of the criticism of von Trier for perceived misogyny and exploitation of his female leads. Though von Trier has countered these criticisms, claiming that his female protagonists are representations of his own feminine side, there is certainly an argument to be made that the female protagonists of von Trier’s films are unfairly and sadistically treated, particularly in the “Golden Heart” trilogy. I’m not sure exactly whether I think that von Trier is a sadist or a misogynist, or if he is simply interested in documenting some of the baser, crueler aspects of human relations as a reflection of his own mental anguish. Watching his films often makes me uncomfortable, which is absolutely his intention as a filmmaker. He has often stated that his intention is to create films that are a “stone in your shoe,” that are provocative in both style and subject matter, and that lead the audience to consider positions or truths that may be unsettling. Breaking the Waves is certainly successful in this respect, and as uncomfortable as it might be to watch, it is often a beautiful and profound film.

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Arriving just over a year after von Trier’s announcement of the Dogme 95 manifesto, a set of rules announcing a new experimental cinema movement that aimed to return filmmaking to a focus on core values of story, performance, and theme, Breaking the Waves shares many stylistic similarities to later Dogme films, but it is not considered a true Dogme film. One goal of Dogme filmmaking was to better connect with the audience by stripping away the artifice of special effects and slick post-production, and though he doesn’t strictly adhere to the filmmaking tenets laid out in the manifesto in Breaking the Waves, the desired effect of audience engagement and delivery of cinematic truth is achieved through von Trier’s beginning to experiment with a more minimalist and naturalistic style. The film was shot entirely with handheld cameras, with von Trier often framing his leads in extreme close ups. The audience is granted an unusual intimacy to Bess and Jan, with von Trier explicitly and frankly filming them having sex, lying in bed, dancing. The camera engages in a sort of dance, as well, with the freedom of movement provided by handheld allowing von Trier to film his subjects from unusual angles. In post-production, von Trier chose to transfer the images from film to video and back to film again, resulting in a slightly grainy, occasionally out of focus image that is reminiscent of a home movie. Although both of these unusual stylistic choices could be seen as disruptive or distracting, used for their distancing effect on the audience, I think that they enhance my own personal identification with the film and the characters, as well as lending the film a sort of cinéma-vérité quality. Sometimes devout realism can rob a film of some of its emotional impact, but in this case I think it helps to create poignancy.

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Of course the real emotional engine of the film is Watson in her performance as Bess. The film requires her to portray the full scope of human emotions, from the joy that Bess experiences when she and Jan are first married to the utter anguish that she feels when she realizes she may have been somehow at fault for his accident. Her performance ranges from performative, histrionic fits of despair to quiet moments of prayer and internal reflection. Despite her devotion to Jan, Watson plays Bess as primarily internally focused, and she incorporates subtleties into the character that hint at her mental illness and her stunted emotional development. There are several scenes that feature Bess praying, and in them she utters her prayers out loud and also vocalizes what she believes to be God’s personal responses to her. Watson’s subtle change of inflection in these scenes, a conversation of one, demonstrate the sadly rich internal world that Bess inhabits, and the extreme religious faith to which she clings. Watson’s Bess is a, literal, wide-eyed innocent, von Trier often framing her face in extreme close up and highlighting her eyes, which seem to be constantly searching. As the film progresses, we see more and more pain enter into those eyes as Bess continues to put herself through emotional and physical punishment. The performance was lauded by critics and Watson earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Astonishingly, Breaking the Waves was her debut feature but she carries the film entirely, imbuing her character with heartbreaking pathos.

Although it is a bleak film, Breaking the Waves isn’t an entirely grim affair. It does have moments of levity and some astonishingly beautiful compositions. The film’s opening scenes at Bess and Jan’s wedding begin the film on a light hearted note. There is music and dancing, and despite the misgivings of Bess’s family and the village Elders, everyone generally seems happy for her. The cultural differences between Jan’s coworkers and the chaste villagers is largely played for laughs, although there is a sinister undertone to an exchange between Jan’s friend, Terry (Jean-Marc Barr), and Bess’s grandfather (Phil McCall), in which the latter smashes a glass with his bare hand in response to the former crushing his beer can in an aggressive manner. Largely, though, the scene sets up what will be a fairly quaint setting for the beginning of the film, before Jan’s accident triggers the film’s darker portions. Von Trier’s film depicts the Scottish countryside as rugged and cold, but beautiful, and the intertitle shots that introduce the seven chapters that he has chosen to break his film up into are stunning, possessing a painterly aesthetic. These intertitles are jarring, made up of landscapes so vibrant they appear to be tinted, the static long shots are soundtracked by 1970s British rock classics, and they stand in stark contrast with the aesthetic of the rest of the film. Their beauty is almost transcendent and its radical departure from the established visual aesthetic of the film indicates that for von Trier, perhaps, there is little place for traditional beauty in the real world of his film. These intertitles could also be seen as a sort of fantasy informed by the influence of Jan on Bess’s life and mental state, as she quickly mentions music as being one of the noteworthy contributions of outsiders like Jan to life in the village when she is being interrogated by the village Elders prior to her wedding. Even when working somewhat within the framework of a restrictive code of filmic ethics such as Dogme filmmaking, von Trier can’t help but include some of the beautiful, set compositions that would become more prevalent in his post-2000 work.

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Von Trier also pulls his punches somewhat by including a quasi-happy ending to the film. While I won’t go into depth on the specifics of the film’s ending, because I think that its final shot is a thing of true beauty and needs to be seen to truly be understood, it does offer some absolution and redemption for Bess. Von Trier’s later films would abandon this sentiment, and often find their heroines left in a much more precarious or pessimistic position at film’s end, but I think that Breaking the Waves is a better film for allowing some light to permeate its darkness. Many seem to think that this film is von Trier’s finest work, but I think that I prefer Dancer in the Dark, perhaps just because I saw it so much earlier in life than I saw Breaking the Waves. Watching it this time, though, I was struck by the film in a way that I hadn’t necessarily been in my first two viewings. It’s easy to get caught up in the film’s bleakness, as its long running time compounds the experience of watching Bess’s prolonged suffering, but the moments of true beauty are certainly there in the film. It’s a more complex film than I had previously realized, and it bears many thematic resemblances to one of my favorite films, Au Hasard Balthazar. Just like that film always does, the ending of Breaking the Waves brought me to tears. Experiencing a Lars von Trier film can be an emotionally exhausting experience, and, to be honest, I don’t know that all of his films are worth the amount of trauma that they can inflict upon a viewer, but Breaking the Waves is a piece of high art. It probably isn’t the best introduction to the cinema of von Trier, but it is a film that’s not to be missed.