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As with most of Lars Von Trier’s movies, Dogville is an experiment in style and storytelling. It’s less successful than Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark. Nevertheless, it is worth a look for the adventurous moviegoer.

Welcome to Dogville

Another Von Trier experiment in style and storytelling
Another Von Trier experiment in style and storytelling

Dogville is a fictitious small town in the Rocky Mountains. It is probably in Colorado, somewhere above Boulder and Georgetown, both of which get mentioned. Judging by the vehicles, the movie is set in the 1920s. About 15 people live in Dogville. It has one store, one church, and a few houses.

Instead of sets or locations, Von Trier sketches Dogville on a huge soundstage. People knock on air and pull invisible doors closed behind them. The actors are allowed furniture and a few walls that figure into the plot, but most of the town exists in the minds of the actors and audience.

Into this small town falls Grace (Nicole Kidman), who is running away from bad men whom the storybook narrator (John Hurt) calls “gangsters.” Tom Edison (Paul Bettany, who doesn’t quite get the accent right) is the first to spot Grace. He hides her in the entrance to the mine and plays dumb when the gangsters arrive, sending them on their way.

The three-hour movie takes many turns, but the broad arc of the story shows the town reluctantly accepting Grace, then embracing her, and finally, ensnaring her.

Emotional Distance

Von Trier’s style has always been dictated by low budgets and an austere aesthetic. (He co-founded the Dogme 95 movement which insists on location shooting and handheld cameras.) For audiences who have grown up watching polished American movies, Von Trier’s approach is distracting at first, but after several minutes, stories and characters usually become so engrossing that the filmmaking style disappears.

In Dogville, however, the style never completely disappears. The stagey set is impossible to ignore, and the intrusive, omniscient narrator never goes away. The movie has more emotional distance from the audience than Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark.

If there’s a reason for emotional distance, it could be to stimulate the critical thinking rather than emotional engagement. Many of the characters justify reprehensible behavior with logical-sounding arguments. Even Grace forgives the locals for their abuse, accepting it as part of life. If you lived in Dogville, if that were your whole universe, you too might believe the rationalization.

But in the movie theater, that’s impossible because of the emotional distance. You know that what everyone does is wrong, including Grace when she gets the chance. That may not be what Von Trier had in mind by choosing a stagey look, but that’s the effect.

I’m Afraid of America

Dogville is a good movie, particularly for the adventurous. Its length and unconventional style may turn off some. Some critics have called it Von Trier’s best work, but I find his emotionally engaging movies like Breaking the Waves to be better. This one may appeal to more sociopolitical audiences who revel in his cynicism and social commentary. But his strong suit is hard-hitting, emotional tragedy, which Dogville does, but not as well.

As a final aside, I should mention that I agree, in part, with other critics who say that Dogville shows Von Trier’s contempt for the U.S. Dogville had seemed a well-aimed criticism of small towns, but over the end credits “Young Americans” by David Bowie plays over pictures of poverty, squalor, and violence, indicating that the critique was of America itself. If that was the point of Dogville, Von Trier missed it by a mile.