Categories: cinema, culture

Nicole Kidman as Grace in Dogville by Lars von Trier, 2003
Have you ever been to Dogville? Not yet? Then, follow the guide. Lars von Trier takes you to a small American town to explore human nature through a story of love, trust, hope, betrayal, murder and revenge.

The America of the 1930s during the Great Depression is still the land of many opportunities. Dogville, a small town lost somewhere in the New World, populated with around 15 people, most of them white families with quite a settled way of life, offers a temporary refuge to a female stranger. It is a beautiful but fragile and helpless Grace (Nicole Kidman) who is running for her life. She is desperately looking for a refuge generously offered by a Dogvillean named Tom (Paul Bettany). Grace is young and pretty, and she pretends escaping from gangsters who intend to kill her. The townspeople are divided whether she is innocent, and whether Dogvilleans are safe with Grace among them. Other moral issues which they have never faced before arise, too. Meanwhile they all try to charge a price for saving Grace’s life and, as they guess, for risking their own.

The plot is classic as a story of hope and betrayal can be. The ending is astonishing and predictable, too. And it is the original screenplay by Lars von Trier which makes it exceptional and outstanding as well as the brilliant cast of Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Harriet Andersson, Chloë Sevigny and some other stars. The film is totally shot indoors, the story being told in a chronological order with a linear structure. The first thing that strikes you is the stage-like setting, as the camera simply shows us the plan of the town, its streets, gardens and houses which are marked out with chalk lines. It is small but at the same time it has no limits. There are some objects to remind us of real life like the general shop, some beds, doors and benches, a truck and some Cadillacs which come to the town in the search of Grace.

The main street named Elm Street has never seen any shadow, and no one has ever seen the dog whose barking breaks the silence of Dogvilleans’ talks. They seem to live a normal life according to the rules of the American society and respect the traditional holidays like Independence Day on the 4th of July. However, they are anything but independent, with an existential fear ruling their lives. They may fear the police or the gangsters as they heard some gunshots just before Grace’s arrival in Dogville. But never has there been any reason for fear. It is just a ghost of fear – the fruit of Dogvilleans’ imagination – that yet keeps on requiring more and more offerings. They sacrifice Grace, her trust and her hope for the best in human beings.

The actors are so credible that even very banal dialogues look quite natural. Their characters are rarely angry or upset; they live in a kind of claustrophobia, making out of their autism a rule of life. Their language is neutral and politically correct. There are no special technical or sound effects. When Dogvilleans speak to each other the silence around them creates a strange atmosphere. It is the same with the dog barking, the gangsters shooting or the doors slamming – you cannot see any dog, or gangsters, or doors in Dogville. Some short extracts from Antonio Vivaldi amplify this effect. The voice of the narrator translates us the way the Dogvilleans think and justify themselves. It could also be the voice of God, the God blessing America – but does He bless its people?

Lars von Trier is very powerful in his use of close-ups as well as panoramic views of the town which does nothing but stress human loneliness, filth, ignorance and irresponsibility. The group thinking and fear dominate the town. It is translated into camerawork and lightning. The former is unnerving and sometimes intrusive, the latter is very contrasting. Although the story lasts for many months and seasons, although we can see the characters by day and night, the overwhelming feeling is darkness. Even daylight is cold and macabre.

The final dilemma of the film is to punish or to forgive. Grace is the only one who could face it as the Dogvilleans have made their choice long before: the signboard ‘Dictum ac factum’ (‘Said and done’) above the cave where Grace had to hide from the police and the gangsters is silent.

The film structured as ‘a story told in nine chapters and a prologue’ inevitably has its ending but the story keeps going on. And you do not have to go to America to find your Dogville.




Genre drama, rating R (for violence and sexual content).

Budget $10,000,000. Box office $1,498,177.

Studio Lions Gate Films. Director Lars von Trier; Producer Vibeke Windeløv; Screenplay Lars von Trier, Linda Daae; Camera Anthony Dod Mantle; Editor Molly Marlene Stensgaard; Music Antonio Vivaldi.

First released April 30, 2003.Available on DVD August 23, 2004. Running time 177 min.


John Hurt as narrator, Nicole Kidman as Grace, Lauren Bacall as Ma Ginger, Chloë Sevigny as Liz Henson, Paul Bettany as Tom Edison, Jr; Stellan Skarsgård as Chuck, Udo Kier as The Man in the Coat, Ben Gazzara as Jack Mckay, James Caan as The Big Man, Patricia Clarkson as Vera.


The plan of Dogville

by Lars von Trier, 2003



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