Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - Dogville (#96)

The Favorites - Dogville (#96)

For what will probably be the only time, "The Favorites" is appearing on a Monday, since my entry in the Wonders in the Dark comedy countdown appears on Wednesday (the normal "Favorites" day) and requires the day to itself.

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Dogville (2003/Denmark/dir. Lars von Trier) appeared at #96 on my original list.

What it is • A very different nightmare on Elm Street. Grace Margaret Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) hides out from gangsters in an all-American small town and eventually the townspeople mix support with exploitation, until she is suffering so greatly at their hands that the gangsters arrive as a force of liberation. The entire film unfolds on a massive soundstage, decorated with a few spare, suggestive props and chalk outlines, a sort of theatrical blueprint. This perverse, fascinating gesture both serves - like the work of playwright and director Bertolt Brecht - to highlight the artificiality inherent in the stories we enjoy (as in Celine and Julie before it), yet the spare set also reminds us how little is really needed for us to fall under the spell of these illusions, since by film's end we're entirely enveloped by the nasty little world of Dogville. On its premiere at Cannes, the film was virulently attacked by viewers and critics who found it misogynistic, misanthropic, and even anti-American. Perhaps it is all of those things, but it's also brutally honest - one of those films in which the director subjects the cast and the audience to psychological games and emotional challenges but doesn't let himself off the hook either.

Why I like it •
Dogville is both brilliant and exhausting. I love it, but I've only seen it once (though I'm overdue for a re-viewing); it was the film that fully revealed Lars von Trier's genius for me. "Postmodern" is a word that's been thrown around a lot in the past twenty years and I think von Trier fits the bill with his heightened self-consciousness, his layers of metatextual irony, his quality of pastiche - mixing and matching elements of film, art, and life which one wouldn't usually associate - just because he can. Yet he has something most postmodernists don't seem to have: a sense of depth, and weight. That's why I like Dogville so much; because alongside the clever presentation, the intellectual mind games, the willful perversity in which nothing is allowed to be simple or face-value, there's also a sense of raw emotion and pain, a feeling of responsibility - as I said, von Trier is brutal but he never lets you forget it's him being brutal, not just the characters onscreen or the situation. He's the director as God, to be sure, but more a Greek god than the Hebrew God, playing with humanity because he can, because he has power, but never trying to dress it up in morality or hide behind a cloud. He tortures others, but he tortures himself first of all. The film is not for everyone, and many don't see the same heart in von Trier. But you should definitely pay a visit to Dogville yourself - this is a bracing and exhilirating movie. To me, a great director expresses his or her vision, in rich cinematic language (and Dogville, for all its theatrical trappings, is cinematic at its core, utilizing close-up, editing, and composition to its advantage), as directly and emphatically as possible. Lars von Trier certainly does that.

How you can see it • Dogville is available on DVD from Netflix.

What do you think? • Is Dogville "enjoyable" or "entertaining"? Does it need to be? Does von Trier take responsibility for his cruelty/sadism, and does he need to? Where does this film stand in his larger body of work? How do its aesthetics and ethos relate to the Dogme 95 movement, a lo-fi manifesto that von Trier cosigned in the 90s? Is von Trier a postmodernist? What does that term mean?


Previous week: Celine and Julie Go Boating (#97)

Next week: Persona (#95)


Unknown said...

I find that most of Von Trier's films are cinematic endurance tests. They're meant to be endured not necessarily enjoyed. That being said, I am a fan of his work. Haven't seen DOGVILLE in years but I do remember Nicole Kidman being excellent in it. The theatrical conceit was a very daring move on Von Trier's part and the gamble paid off as you so rightly point out.

Joel Bocko said...

I find his work very perversely enjoyable - he reminds me of Dostoevsky (a comparison I know some might blanche at), in that he takes you to dark, morbidly self-conscious places, but there's such an intense, focused precision to the way he does so. That and his work often does have a kind of raw, rugged beauty whether lo-fi like Breaking the Waves or exquisitely formalist like the opening of Antichrist.

Jon said...

I too really love this film based upon my one and only viewing in the theatre. I don't tend to re-watch Von Trier films though. The only one I've seen twice is Breaking the Waves. I will always seek out his newest work though and he's one of the essential directors working today. He was able to conjure out one of Kidman's best if not THE best performance of her career.

Unknown said...

Yeah, I haven't rewatched too many of his films either. DANCER IN THE DARK is a great film so brutal to watch I don't know if I could handle another viewing. That being said, I do really like EUROPA and have watched it a few times and, more recently, MELANCHOLIA, which was amazing. But I think my fave Von Trier, oddly enough, is THE KINGDOM. TWIN PEAKS meets ER....

Joel Bocko said...

Jon, yeah this is a film I've still only seen once yet it obviously left a strong impression. In fact I think the only Von Trier I've seen more than once is, of all things, Antichrist!

Joel Bocko said...

J.D., even though he's probably my favorite European director of the 00s (though theres still a lot I need to see), I actually haven't seen ANY of his pre-Breaking the Waves films. I suspect I'm going to love them when I do.

One of my favorite Von Trier's, that doesn't get mentioned enough, is Five Obstructions. I think it's a key to his perverse sensibility and personal/artistic code.

Mike said...

Hmmm... what the hell was that? This film was totally unlike anything I've ever seen before. The theatrical approach was both frustrating and fascinating. The characters are mopey and pathetic. I hated them all, even Grace, because she was so damn vague. The ending was such a relief. Call me cold hearted but now I can sleep better knowing that the lowlife scum of Dogville are dead and gone. I have absolutely no intention of re-visiting it but this viewing experience was pretty powerful. One thing that struck me as odd (well, among many, but never mind) was a lack of humor for such an absurd premise. There were some silly elements like the lady who rang the bell constantly being confused, but overall this was a very serious and depressing film. I don’t really know what to make of that..

Joel Bocko said...

Good description of Dogville's perverse pleasures, Mike. Although I actually feel Von Trier has a very strong sense of humor, it's very Godardian and I'm kind of at a loss to describe it or how it functions. I just kind of see & feel it, a deadpan perverse, highly ironic sensibility is way too elaborate to tip its hand in obvious winking. Wracking my brain for an analogy that could bring this home. At any rate, I see him as a kind of cosmic jester.

Again, best I can do is point to Five Obstructions as a key film in this regard, since you actually get to see von Trier face to face and how his malevolent, manipulatively wicked sense of humor operates. Maybe that's where I'm getting this sense from? At any rate, you're not alone in seeing unrelenting misery and seriousness in Dogville but for some reason the only film I really feel doesn't have a sense of humor or irony about itself is Dancer in the Dark, which is also my least favorite of von Trier's movies.

Great fun to have you following along like this, and can't wait to see what you make of some of the films to come!

Mike said...

Well I guess I just don't 'get' Von Trier's sense of humor. His idea of funny seems very self fulfilled/self satisfying that to others wouldn’t be funny or would just go right over their heads. He reminds me of a hipster spouting off obscure nonsense that wouldn’t even make sense to a bystander but the hipster himself finds it hilarious.

This is my second Von Trier film, the first was Melancholia and that probably left me feeling even shitier then this one. I watched it with my dad and we agreed there was only one humorous line in the entire film (when the guy was asked to guess how many beans were in the vase he answered 2 billion, that rendered a chuckle from us) everything else was gloom and doom. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the film is still powerful; however it makes it difficult to want to revisit it. I do want to see The Five Obstructions now, sounds like an interesting premise.

Now some directors like the Coen brothers have a sense of humor that I’m very much in tune with. A film like No Country for Old Men has heavy themes of morality and sociopathic evil people but there is still a streak of absurdist humor coiled in there that really helps with each subsequent viewing. I guess someone could say the same things about the Coen brothers that I said in the first paragraph about Von Trier but oh well comedy is subjective.

I’m also looking forward to seeing the films on this list. Top 100 lists are fascinating to me and more bloggers (and critics, for that matter) should do the same thing you’re doing here. The format you’re using is a great and accessible way to invite others to explore and discuss your favorite films. Keep up the good work man!

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, 5 Obsctructions will probably be the make/break on whether Von Trier's humor gibes with you (not even in the sense of finding it funny, necessarily, just in recognizing it). I almost used the "h" word myself in describing von Trier's humor but held off a bit because beneath all the winking (some would say wanking) levels of meta-mindfuck and , there is a definite sense of the moral and the serious. That's what I like about von Trier - he's one of the only postmodern artists (and I think he is a postmodern artist, although this opens up a whole new can of worms lol) who seems to have a real depth of feeling and philosophy to him, at least if you scratch the surface enough.

Yup, I love top 100s too for precisely the reason you mention. Canons get knocked sometimes for being pretentious or arbitrary, but I think if you take them with the right amount of salt they are wonderful guides and spurs to exploration. I've seen so many films that otherwise would have languished just because some silly list brought them to my attention. Humans are funny animals, you frame things a certain way and it really triggers something that otherwise would remain dormant.

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