Thinking Fellers Union
It is hard to describe Dogsville easily. The movie opens up on a slightly darkened sound stage. We're looking down from the ceiling to a sort of chalk outline of a township. What might have been a device to orient some viewers to the movie setting is really our set for the movie. This bit of minimalism is somewhat startling in our CGI world. It reminds me of a cross between an under budget high school production and the great filmed works of staged plays. The chalk outlines are combined with small details to frame houses, buildings, shops, or walkways. Lars von Trier directed and wrote the script for this movie. The sparse stage seems inline with some of the principles of von Trier's Dogma 95 pledge, but certainly the indoor setting, special lighting, and props are different than any thing else he has done. There is also a strong voice over acting as the narrator for the movie. This movie is very deliberate and movies that work so dogmatically to prove their point can be an insightful perspective or a burden. If you read the many reviews about Dogsville, von Trier is either the Danish Oliver Stone or some new film genius. To me Oliver Stone skipped the courses on subtlety in Directors University. His films are coarse and at best seem to convey one message (if there is a message). Wall Street shows us the corrupting power of greed, Natural Born Killers decries the offenses of our news and media. The list goes on. Simple sentences can describe the thrust of Stone's movie. von Trier is different. It is not clear if there is a simple message in Dogsville. The director is certainly manipulating the actors, the script, and the audience for a specific goal.
The town of Dogsville has ~15 people in it. It is somewhere in the Colorado mountains. Grace (Kidman) shows up in the town after Edison Jr has heard gunshots in the valley. Edison Jr lives off of the pension of his father and is some sort of Great Depression Trust Fund kid. He wanders the town thinking and observing and preaching to the townspeople. Grace arrives just in time to be an illustration of his ideas of community. Will the town take Grace in? They decide to let her stay for two weeks. Grace is thankful and does "unneeded" chores around town. The people come to really like the extra help and treat Grace well. The movie is divided into very discrete chapters and the use of the chapters allows von Trier to find some understanding of equilibrium and then manipulate the balance by adding one piece of information. By chapter three or four, some more information about Grace is given to the town of Dogsville. She's gone missing. This seems to be enough for the town to fully embrace her and set her up in the town to be the domestique of the various houses. Then we find out Grace is wanted. The town feels awkward about this. Should the respect the law? The sweetness of their collective relationship with Grace begins to spoil. Some people want to take more of her time. Some people are tempted to turn her in. Grace becomes an object -- for discussion, for speculation, for unrequited love, and for sex. Eventually, the town becomes so possessive that they chain Grace to an old wheel so she won't escape. The abusive treatment towards Grace as an object continues. Eventually, Grace's gangster father returns to Dogsville to retrieve her. Grace breaks down and her polyanna-ish attitude of acceptance is replaced with a colder attitude of judgement. She takes her vengeance on the town of Dogsville.
There are some really good performances in Dogsville. The script is very deliberate and does not allow for many degrees of freedom, but I found the acting drew me into the odd constructs of this film. Some may find the characters are not fully developed, but this isn't a character based story. This is a fable of some sort.
I was also intrigued by the minimalism of the set. Small changes to watch a tree move from late spring to bloom to harvest were a focusing device. There's not much scenery so the actors are filmed in tight shots. There are excellent touches of lighting and awkward but useful sound effects.
von Trier is by no means a humanist. With a film this deliberate, it is clear that the building message is one of condemnation. Some have suggested small town America (Edison, Washington, and Lincoln are direct prop references), some have suggested all of humanity. I can't say everyone will like Dogsville or any of its messages; but, it is worth seeing simply to view a radical departure from our normal round of lifeless action-comedies and to participate in a very polarizing debate about the qualities of the film.
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