Directed by Lars von Trier

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For the first nine-tenths of Dogville, director Lars von Trier seems to follow the same pattern he’s used before: a delicate female is destroyed by an odd society that puts her in a moral quandary. The waif this time is Nicole Kidman, as Grace, and the style this time is a stripped-bare fairy tale. Actors move through a single minimal set that represents an American mining town of an era past, but it seems to have been shot in a warehouse or on a sound stage. Buildings consist of a few key interior props surrounded by chalk outlines in place of walls, but unlike the imaginary sets of such minimally staged film-plays as Vanya on 42nd Street, these invisible doors sound like wood when you knock on them, the sky produces real snow, and the chalk drawing of a dog barks. The story is framed by an occasionally sarcastic narrator and peopled by a uniformly good cast. These elements come together to form a movie that is clinically ironic but also unique, inspired and quite sublime.

It’s tempting to see the story as an allegory—von Trier says he used the Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill song “Pirate Jenny” as a starting point—but the movie seems to be open to any number of political, social or religious interpretations. The movie has more god figures than a Greek tragedy, including not only half the characters but also a camera mounted on high that looks down on the town as if it’s a sketch on paper, and a hand-held camera operated by von Trier, that roves among the actors. The waif, too, is dropped messianically from an upper-class into a working-class town.

The character that seems most like a stand-in for von Trier himself is Tom, played by Paul Bettany. Tom is the town writer and philosopher who loves and shelters Grace but also manipulates people and ultimately engineers Grace’s predicament. He’s writing a novel about her, possibly part of a trilogy, just as von Trier has made this movie about her and expects it to be the first in a trilogy. Some of von Trier’s previous movies, particularly Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, have been criticized for using an almost misogynistic sadism to manipulate the emotions of the audience, and the characterization of Tom in Dogville so closely fits these complaints that it comes across as a self-critique, especially amid the frequent discussions of profiting from the pain of others and treating people as sub-human. Or maybe it’s a self-defense. Whichever, if you keep this in mind during the movie’s surprising final chapter, a dialogue seems to develop between von Trier and his downtrodden creation. He seems to walk through his story and consider its various components.

The climax is a vilification of just about everyone and an argument for (or against) the arrogance of liberal forgiveness. It’s all thought-provoking, but I’m not sure if the ideas are complex or merely muddled by layers of irony. A montage of still photos plays beneath the closing credits—photos of America’s underclass (and Richard Nixon) set to David Bowie’s “Young American”—which gives the movie a certain theatrical finality and anti-American bile, two of von Trier’s specialties, but it does nothing to clarify the movie’s ideas except to underline the theme of condescension toward lower classes. Tom tries to convince Grace that the ending of his “illustration” is unexpectedly “edifying,” an argument that you could imagine von Trier making about Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, or even The Idiots. Tom is right that the illustration seems to aim for unexpected edification, or at least profundity. He’s also right to assume that some viewers may need some convincing before they find it successful.