Dogville / Lars von Trier / 2003 /

Active Ingredients: Deconstructionist conceit; Confrontational ending
Side Effects: Reality TV camerawork; Acting; Forced middle act

Dogville, like many of director Lars von Trier’s films, takes some adjusting. The film opens with the great Jon Hurt delivering storybook narration as we are presented with a map of Dogville, the stand-in for small town America. Except it’s not a map, it’s the town itself. The film takes place entirely on a sound stage where von Trier has constructed his mythical town, stripping it of features and baring its insides for us to see. The seemingly-harmonious town is thrown out of balance when a mysterious woman (Nicole Kidman) pursued by gangsters seeks refuge. The town harbors her, but not without demanding something in return, and what once seemed a peaceful community begins to devolve.

Von Trier’s radical choice of set design dovetails nicely with this theme of exposing what lies at the heart of Dogville. While adding door knocks and other sounds to objects that aren’t there does feel a bit silly, the conceit allows him the qualitatively new effect of showing the private lives of the town’s citizen’s behind closed doors, as action takes place elsewhere. This balance between self-aware fiction and aggressive moral drama is difficult to achieve, and once again I feel that von Trier’s Dogme 95 filmmaking style is completely at odds with his ideas. Cameras are wielded haphazardly, jerkily zooming and panning as if in a bad reality TV show, undermining the rigorous world of artifice he’s created. The film is also a long three hours, and he’s takes a rather roundabout way to develop themes of acceptance and domestic evil. By the end of the film, however, when von Trier suddenly and powerfully asks us to pass our own judgement on the citizens of Dogville, I’m able to forgive its previous unevenness.