Guest review by Reecey.
Consider this a prior warning, Dogville is a film that contains scenes of sexual assault, and I’m going to be discussing those in this review. I kind of don’t have a choice because this is a Lars von Trier film.
I am not an American.
I am English.
Therefore I will not be entertaining the notion that the fact that von Trier has never been to America is any kind of acceptable criticism of his film. (-coughRogerEbertendcough-)
It’s an utterly facile, and ultimately xenophobic, criticism of the film, its subject matter, its theme and even the actors and filming location.
The filming location.
First things first, it’s a Brechtian masterpiece of set design. It’s lines, one pile of fake rocks, a bench, a couple of trees, two walls and a window and a handful of furniture on a soundstage.
It doesn’t matter where it’s filmed.
I read one New York Times article that pointed out that the male lead was played by English actor Paul Bettany for no reason.
Also, ‘he’s never even been here!’.
He might as well have been for all that it’s worth.
Every western European has had American news and culture forced down their throats for decades.
We don’t need to go there because we’ve been made forcefully aware of every single major event in American history for at least the last sixty years.
You don’t get to mass export your culture and then complain when the recipients make comments on it.
Now, let’s take a deep cleansing breath from discussing the major, massively xenophobic, criticisms of the film and actually take about the meat and bones of the thing.
Allow me to set the scene:
We are in the township of Dogville in the mountains of Colorado during the Great Depression, as the velvet voice of the late John Hurt narrates to us.
Our story begins with a young man named Thomas Edison Jr (yes, really) being a pretentious twit thinking about human nature and the nature of acceptance and helping people when he hears gunshots in the valley below his isolated township. Some time after, a young socialite appearing lady named Grace happens upon Dogville, seemingly on the run from gangsters, see?
Seeing a prime opportunity to illustrate a point he wanted to make to the fourteen other adult members of the town during one of his frequent ‘morality lectures’ (which he gives regularly to avoid writing), he invites the young lady to stay in their town.
Two vital plot points emerge during this time, the gangsters show up and give Thomas their contact information, and that he concocts a plan to have the young lady prove her true nature to the town by doing things for them for two weeks. If their minds weren’t changed after two weeks, she’d leave the town.
She’s perfectly willing to do both, so they start their plan. Over the following fortnight, she befriends the townsfolk, initially attempting to do so by asking if there was anything they needed, and then offering to help them with things they’d like, but weren’t convinced were vital enough to do themselves.
Things go well, and she gets to stay in the town with everyone’s blessing, even the crotchety Chuck who seemingly took against her to begin with.
She is accepted into the small community and is fairly paid for her work, helping everyone, including Jack who is blind, and June, who has some sort of brain damage and uses a wheelchair.
She also helps Chuck with his orchard on top of these various domestic tasks for the other townsfolk.
Everything is going great, with even a blossoming romance with Thomas in the works, until the gangsters change their tactic from declaring her missing, to either strong arming or bribing the police into declaring her wanted.
This is where everything starts going hideously wrong.
With a large reward posted for information as to her whereabouts, leaving the town becomes far more treacherous than before.
The power dynamic has shifted further in the townsfolk’s favour, and it starts to show.
They demand more work from her and reduce her pay, she accepts these conditions, and after a day of helping Chuck in his orchard, he confronts her about her shrinking away from him, and confesses to thinking about blackmailing her into respecting him by threatening to rat her out.
Shortly after this, two things happen.
The first is this strange scene where Chuck’s eldest son demands to be punished by her, specifically being spanked by her, and despite him being a child this is all weirdly sexual on his end.
The second is Chuck getting the police up to Dogville by telling them that he found some item of clothing that may have belonged to Grace. He times this in such a way that she is trapped in his house while the police are in the town and uses her inability to run away or call for help to rape her.
This is where the set design is at its best.
Because the houses don’t have walls as far as the viewer is concerned, it makes the assault this weird, semi public act where the townsfolk are purposefully turning a blind eye.
Now, many people will argue that rape in fiction is overused, and they are absolutely right.
A lot of rape in media is completely gratuitous, and due to a total lack of imagination by predominantly male writers for bad things to happen to female characters.
However, this is not one of those times.
One of the major themes here is the mistreatment of the powerless by the powerful, and one of the abuses that happens most commonly in a power imbalance like this is sexual abuse.
This aspect of the story reflects this reality.
Furthermore, we see the act itself twice, and all other times are implied to have happened. One these two occasions, there is not a single attempt to titillate the audience. We see Chuck’s bottom during and the shape of his testicles after, and that is all the flesh on display.
There aren’t even any torture porn elements. The scenes come across as more emotionally painful for Grace than physically so, and pathetic on the parts of Chuck and the other man we see assault her.
It’s mundanity allows the betrayal to cut the audience deep, especially by Chuck, as his honesty earlier created the impression of a flawed man who was trying his best.
As most rapists prey on those they know and who trust them, betrayal is a major part of the pain that they cause. An aspect of the crime that the gratuitous portrayals don’t explore, and even some of the serious attempts to portray the reality of it fail to adequately address.
Eventually, she attempts to escape with Thomas’ help, but he thwarts this attempt after she kindly declines to sleep with him. (He knows what Chuck is doing, by the way.)
Things go from bad to worse, with the town’s horrendous behaviour towards Grace ultimately causing rifts within their own community.
Thomas tries one last ditch effort to fix things by gathering a meeting of the townsfolk and encouraging Grace to air her grievances to them, forcing them to face what they have done and own up to their terrible behaviour.
They do not do this.
They tell him to pick sides, and after he fails to convince Grace to have sex with him one last time, he contacts the gangsters.
I’m not going to tell you how it ends, and there are a lot of details I’ve left out (it’s three hours long), so if you’re interested I would recommend trying it. Preferably with a friend whose free with the hugs and gentle shushing.
It’s a slow, slow burn, but it needs to be. There needs to be trust in the characters so that they can betray Grace, and by extension, us.
And all of the characters do end up betraying us, except Achilles, who is a baby, and Moses, who is a dog.
It will leave you with a lot to think about, which I think was von Trier’s goal all along.