The film is about Dogville, a small town of 15 people in the mountains, somewhere in the US. It is hard times and they are living in harsh conditions. Among the 15 people, the most talkative and intellectual is Tom Edison Jr (Paul Bettany), a writer who never writes and who sees himself as a philosopher, developing theories about the town and its people. One day comes an outsider, a beautiful fugitive, Grace (Nicole Kidman), running away from gangsters. People in the town look at her with suspicion, but Tom speaks to them about openness and acceptance, and convinces them to give her a 2-week trial. She gets accepted, and starts working for everyone to pay for the refuge. Slowly she receives pay for her labour. Then the police come searching for Grace, everything gets worse, people get suspicious and fearful, seeing her presence as an inconvenience, a burden, a cost to themselves, and demand more back. As she becomes more dependent and therefore more vulnerable, people in the town start to exploit her, use her, abuse her—gradually, Grace becomes the town’s slave, and sex slave, chained and collared.
Dogville is an experimental film, perhaps Lars von Trier’s most inventive in form. Emphasising artifice and theatricality, the film is set in black box theatre, with white outlines in place of walls and large letters on the floor to indicate buildings, and with few props. Lars von Trier fearlessly (or carelessly?) uses zoom and jumpy cuts, paying no regard to continuity, as one may expect from one of the founders of Dogme 95. However, Dogville is not a careless mess done for the sake of being different. It is artistic in its use of light, and sound, and the film, when stripped off realistic sets and all that, forces the audience to focus more on the story and the performances.
At the same time, the bare stage works well for the story of a small, closed, and barren town, where each person’s business is everyone’s business, and where people gradually drop their social niceties and masks to reveal their narrow-mindedness, meanness, and maliciousness. It also works brilliantly for the film as a parable—about capitalism; about xenophobia, suspicion, and exploitation of a vulnerable outsider; about selfishness, cowardice, self-justification, and hypocrisy; about trust, mistrust, and betrayal; about the US in particular and humanity in general; about evil.
Moreover, the film is not only about exploitation and betrayal of a vulnerable outsider, as lots of reviews I read seem to suggest. The ending is a different turn, raising questions about saint vs sinner, empathy, acceptance, suffering as masochism or a form of self-flagellation, and most interesting of all, hypocrisy, and the arrogance and condescension in (Christian) forgiveness. The townspeople are hypocrites. Tom, the moral voice of the town, is even more hypocritical, a false intellectual full of empty words— he is hollow, selfish, cowardly, dishonest, and self-serving. Grace is no better, she too is hypocritical, and sanctimonious.
But that is where the problem with Dogville lies, as with other films by Lars von Trier. He is without doubt among the most creative and inventive directors working today—he is bold, daring, extreme, therefore provocative and controversial. But is he truly great? I’d say not. His vision makes his films hollow in their extreme negativity. That is Lars von Trier’s chief fault—his misanthropy, his lack of humanity, his bleak, depressing view of the world as cruel, hypocritical and hopeless, and his insistence on forcing it down our throats and making us suffer without giving much in return. When I watch anything by him, if I manage to suffer to the end, I might be glad to have seen it, but generally don’t want to watch it again. That comes from a fan of Ingmar Bergman (I’ve seen Persona 3 times, Cries and Whispers twice, Autumn Sonata twice). The difference between the 2 is that in Ingmar Bergman’s films, we still see magic, love, joy, happiness, and hope; we see none in Lars von Trier’s films. The ugliness of his world is to me unnecessary and unfair, and doesn’t reflect the real world—for all misery and suffering, life as I see it still has its joys and hopes.
Lars von Trier’s films can be interesting, creative and provocative, but in the end, they are hollow.