Lars Von Trier’s ‘Dogville’ and the Dogme Legacy

Apr 13th, 2010

I must confess to a prejudice: I hate films that don’t change spaces. At the theatre, it doesn’t matter to me if there are no set alterations and every scene takes place in the same location; when it comes to film, I want to move from one space to another. This may sound like an ontological assertion about what film should be, based on the nature of the medium: because montage (the process of sticking two pieces of film together) and the portable movie camera make it possible for film to explore a wide variety of spaces, any self-respecting film therefore must do just this. No, my feeling of claustrophobia when I watch a film that takes place in a single room is surely subjective, although maybe a sense of the camera as a caged bird has something to do with my reaction. Happily I’ve successfully avoided watching these single-space films for some time now, but one famous example that comes to mind is Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948): an intriguing film, but one that still makes me feel like going out for a long walk after I watch it.

Another Hitchcock film that takes place in one room is “Rear Window” (1954), yet this film is one of my favourites. This may be because the reporter Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is unwillingly confined to his apartment by a broken leg. Even more importantly, “Rear Window” maintains an outward-oriented perspective: the film’s eponymous window overlooks a courtyard, and as the housebound Jeffries obsessively watches what his neighbours are up to, it is as though the film has entered another space, even though the camera itself has remained in the same position as Jeffries in front of his window.

Before I watched Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” (2003), I had heard that the film took a revolutionary approach to décor. In a manner reminiscent of modern theatre, it situated the action in a single stark space, where the town’s buildings were indicated schematically by white lines and labels painted on the floor. You can imagine, then, that I was not optimistic about how this film would make me feel.  The action might well move from ‘house’ to ‘house’ in Dogville, but that surely wouldn’t change the fact that these houses are just drawings on the floor of a big black studio. I was prepared for an oppressive film that would make me feel penned in, and so it did, but in such a deliberate way that the effect was impressive, not irritating. In fact, it has been a long time since a film impressed me as much as “Dogville” did. The fact that the film’s action was limited to a single space with no real walls to separate people from each other made the film’s action all the more wrenching: it exacerbated the terrifying sense that Grace (Nicole Kidman) was a prisoner in a place that was cut off from the rest of the world. She could not escape from the village, nor was there anywhere within “Dogville” where she could hide from the villagers.

Lars Von Trier

Part of the problem I normally have with films taking place in one space is that I grow bored with that space; boredom ought to have been an even greater problem in “Dogville’s” minimalist space. The film’s stark décor can be attributed to the continued influence of Dogme’s film purity manifesto, or Vow of Chastity, which “Dogville” seems to have taken to the extreme.  The Danish film movement’s manifesto was intended to encourage a simplified approach to filmmaking in its technical aspects (camera movement, props, lighting, etc), which would shift emphasis towards ideas, expressed through character relationships. Von Trier’s earlier film “The Idiots” (1998) and Lone Scherfig’s “Italian for Beginners” (2000) both conform to Dogme’s focus on character and ideas rather than technical perfection. Similarly, in “Dogville” it is precisely the pitch of the interactions among the characters that gives the film its tension: the viewer’s anticipation of how events will develop is so intense that there is no need for more than a few props to support the action.

The end of “Dogville” brings a climax not only in the characters’ relationships but in the film’s philosophy, and it was here that “Dogville” impressed me most.  It forced me to thoroughly examine my feelings and reactions towards a given idea, without offering a clear or easy answer as to which reaction is correct.  This also happens in “The Idiots,” where the viewer is led to consider whether it is ethical for a group of young people to play at being physically and/or mentally disabled because they consider it to be a privileged state.  “Dogville’s” ethical questions are arguably more pressing, as they deal with scenarios which are more familiar in everyday life.  “Dogville” forces the audience to confront questions such as: should the outsider automatically have the same rights as the native-born, or do these rights have to be earned?  Are people basically good or are they opportunistic by nature?  Is ignorance, fear, loneliness or poverty an excuse for bad behaviour?  Is it right for those who have been wronged to take revenge when they have the chance?  The way in which the village treats Grace makes the audience seriously question whether humans are naturally good.  Even if one can find excuses for the villagers, it does not change the fact that their behaviour is dreadful.

Having suffered alongside Grace, the audience may well share her satisfaction at the possibility of exacting an equally cruel revenge on the village.  The audience may also feel an opposite emotional reaction, of pity for the villagers in spite of their guilt.  Films often ask questions in order to implicitly give the answers, and these answers usually depend on the political views of the filmmaker.  “Dogville” stands out because it offers both right-wing and left-wing viewpoints, and leads the audience through the reasoning behind each of these; at the same time it complicates either point of view by introducing emotion, which makes rational answers appear insufficient.

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