Dogville is a barking concept

I’m not really sure why it was I picked up Dogville in the first place.I’d like to say it was because I’m intrigued by Lars von Trier‘s varied and divisive style, but I just found that on his Wikipedia page, so it would be a lie. I think it was probably because I have a bit of a thing about Nicole Kidman. I mean, I’ve seen some of his stuff, I’m not a complete Philistine, but I wasn’t a fan. Until now.

Films sometimes make me think. It’s true! I’m mulling over Shutter Island and will get to putting down my thoughts at some point soon (with an obvious link to The Notebook I expect). More often than not though, I take the great think man’s films, watch them, and discard them, because I am a bit of a Philistine. Dogville though, drew me in, entertained me and without really making me work for it, it made me really dig into those characters, draw out their motivations, their flaws and their their thoughts and walk away with it inside my head for days afterwards.

First things last, this is a slightly odd film. It’s set in a small rural community in the US (although the country hardly matters) and as such doesn’t require hugely diverse setting. Nonetheless, Von Trier has opted for almost no set. The whole thing is run as a filmed play with minimal props staging. The houses, doors, plants and trees are chalk outlines on a black set, even the dog is represented by the word “DOG” chalked on the floor. It all sounds a bit pretentious and rubbish right? But it’s not. It works. I can imagine Dogville right now, streets, trees(not elms, mind), houses and all because its presence is very much more real than the towns in so many other films I’ve watched. Sure, I can recognise the windmill from Moulin Rouge, but Montmartre? Could be anywhere. Gotham city? Just another American town with a Batcave outside it. Dogville? Quite the place. Maybe this is because I’m more engaged by narrative and relationships than location, but I still think it worked jolly well.

This is all aided by John Hurt’s narration, his grandfatherly tones setting the scene and providing segues and bringing everything a little more to life. Effective use of mime (oh how I’ve yelled at actors for poor mime…) and minimalist but well placed sounds fill out the gaps. I wouldn’t want to see every film done this way, but for a one-off (or two-off, see sequel Manderlay) it’s refreshing.

The film follows the arrival of Nicole Kidman’s Grace in Dogville looking for help, the townspeople’s responses to her and hers to them, aided by Paul Bettany’s local man Tom who becomes infatuated with her (who wouldn’t?). Both of the leads are wonderfully understated. I wondered at times whether this was because these two successful screen actors were uncomfortable on such a minimalist set, but on consideration I feel that their characterisation worked well and showed each other and the other characters off to best effect. This is, after all, a play about people’s responses. Other actors are generally competent without any real standout performances with the exception of James Caan’s late-game entry. I shan’t reveal too much in a review but for me his performance really woke me up as I got comfortable and settled in for a smoothe but easy ride to the end of the film. His part, in particular, is quite well written, or perhaps it seems so because he only appears briefly.

This is a film(/play) about arrogance, a theme close to my heart (I’m working on it, by the grace of God). It raises questions of the nature of humanity, endurance and the human spirit. It made me rethink the way I view myself and those around me in both positive and negative ways, and this conflict in itself is interesting. As a film alone it would have appeared clumsy or over-the-top in its some of its characterisations, but with the increased suspension of disbelief demanded by its play-like setting it gains latitude and is better able to ask difficult questions for it.

Not everyone will enjoy Dogville, I’m sure, some will find it pretentious, obvious or just downright boring (running time just shy of 3 hours) and that’s fine. But it is, I think, a film that everyone should see once for its different style, staging and approach. I loved it and was drawn right in by it, but if nothing else, it would be a great conversation point with the other (few) who have seen it.