Film review: Dogville (2003)

Spoilers occur about the ending, this review is intended for those who have already watched the film.

My review is a contribution to the LAMB Lars von Trier director's chair event July 16th.

In the US during the depression era of the 1930s, the beautiful fugitive Grace (Nicole Kidman) arrives in the isolated fictional town of Dogville on the run from a team of gangsters. With some encouragement from Tom (Paul Bettany) , the self-appointed town spokesman, the little community agrees to hide her, and in return, Grace agrees to work for them. However, when a search gets underway, the people of Dogville demand a better deal in exchange for the risk of harbouring poor Grace, and she learns the hard way that, in this town, goodness is relative. But Grace has a secret and it is a dangerous one. Dogville may regret it ever began to bare its teeth.

The film is the first in von Trier's projected USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy, followed by Manderlay (2005) and to be completed with Wasington.

Dogville contains at least two stories. Graces story, about a dispute or rebellion against her father. Secondly, Tom’s ambition of being a writer. Grace is the self-sacrificing character, while Tom is an idealistic man, who has big plans.

Tom is a self-appointed moral guardian. He is comparable to Triers other idealists, who want to do good, but cause chaos. Tom sees Grace as an opportunity to throw light on Dogville’s unsound moral values. Yet Tom has his own agenda, his motivation is to gather material for his novel, which he appears incapable of writing. Tom is helpless to everything happening around him.

The ending:
Ebert and Roeper criticized Dogville as having a strongly anti-American message, citing, for example, the closing credits sequence with images of poverty-stricken Americans (taken from Jacob Holdt's documentary book American Pictures, 1984) accompanied by David Bowie's song Young Americans

According to von Trier, the point of the film is that "evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right."

In the New Testament, which chronicles Jesus’ life and death, the merciful God forgives you. In the final scene, Grace decides that the townspeople should be punished for their cruelty, and the Goddess of mercy is transformed into the judgemental Goddess (that we know from the Old Testament).

In many ways, the community in Dogville are pawns in a game they don't know they are a part of. Being evaluated without knowing by who. The audience are likewise in the dark until the devastating climax, but can follow the good and bad choices that are made. You could interpret the film as a lifetime and the ending as a judgement on how you conducted yourself during that life. How you lived your life sums up who you are, more so than words can ever do.
Perceived in this manner, Grace's arrival in Dogville is ambiguous. Is Grace God's vehicle leading the townspeople into temptation and thus revealing their true colours?
Should they be punished if they are just acting on human instinct? Would the community have become evil, if Grace was not so naive? The film seems to be a statement on not exploiting people. Seen in this light, Grace acts as a God at the end of the film, passing judgement based on her own definition of good and evil, and leads to the inevitable question, shouldn't God (Grace) forgive?
If Grace had forgiven the community, wouldn't they have committed more evil acts in the future? Yes, but to sin is human, to forgive is divine. What is worse, to sin or to inflict a punishment in return? These are some of the moral dilemmas Dogville raises. This leads back to Dancer in the Dark.

It is a parable that uses an extremely minimal, stage-like set to tell the story.

The bare staging serves to focus the audience's attention on the acting and storytelling, and also reminds them of the film's artificiality. As Surrender to the Void writes in his review, "Lars von Trier has once again made his mark as a groundbreaking filmmaker by just stripping everything down to the essentials."

Dogville is more theatre than film. Classic theatre is dialogue based. The lines in Dogville clarify the character’s nature and the idea of the drama.

The challenge for the actors was to familiarize themselves with the theatre setting, which acted as the mining town Dogville. von Trier asked the actors to spend time on the set as much as possible and be in character. It was a technique he used previously on The Idiots, where the actors were in character off camera.

The voiceover storyteller (John Hurt) conveys what seems to be irony and distance, which has been compared to the German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s theatre methods of the 1930, who Lars von Trier read in his youth. The same period, coincidently as Dogville and Manderlay (the sequel) take place.

As Mette at limereviews writes in her review: "no walls, a village of a dozen houses without walls. And that is so ingenious for countless reasons. The most obvious reason I can think of is that you can see into the houses which is extremely interesting in many scenes, and that you can overlook the whole village in one shot from above. It must also have kept the production cost extremely low – the only thing that might have been expensive in this film are some of the actors. Wonderful and very interesting is also, how after 15 minutes or so, you start imagining the surroundings yourself, which proves that: no, you don't need locations, you don't even need walls”

Interview with Lars von Trier about Dogville (2003):

Lars von Trier: “But the real essence of the whole thing is that the elements that have been taken from theatre and literature are not just mixed up with the forms of expression offered by film. (…) It should be a thoroughly blended and harmonious emulsion.”

Interviewer: There are elements in Dogville, which are reminiscent of classic Anglo-Saxon literature, from Fielding to Dickens, with the omniscient narrator’s voice and the division into chapters, where the chapter headings give an idea of what is about to happen.

Lars von Trier: “That’s true, but it’s more likely I had a book like Winnie the Pooh in mind when I was writing the screenplay. There, at the beginning of each chapter you read things like, ‘In which Pooh and Piglet go hunting and nearly catch a Woozle’, for instance, Things like that, which really get your imagination going. One of my favourite films is Barry Lyndon, which is also divided into chapters, although I don’t remember if there are any clues as to what the chapters are going to contain”

Interviewer: the song The Threepenny Opera?

Lars von Trier: “I listened to that a lot and was really seduced by the great revenge motif in the song (…) We happened to be listening to that song, and I said I could see myself making a film about revenge. I thought the most interesting thing would be to come up with a story where you build up everything leading to the act of vengeance. And of course these days I’ve got this notion that I can only make films that are set in the USA, maybe because I was criticized when Dancer in the Dark came out for making a film about a country I’ve never been to. I can’t really understand that sort of criticism. But one reason for it might be that I criticized the American justice system in the film. And I daresay I know more about America from various media than the Americans did about Morocco when they made Casablanca. They never went there either. Humphrey Bogart never set foot in the town.
These days it’s hard not to pick up information about America. I mean, ninety per cent of all news and films comes from the USA. I reckon it ought to be interesting for American to see how a non-American who has never visited the USA regards their country. And Kafka wrote an extremely interesting novel called America, and he’d never been there either. So from now on I only want to make films that are set in the USA. For the time being, at least. Dogville is also set in the Rocky Mountains, a landscape that has always seemed to symbolize the USA for me. A powerful landscape, run through with deep ravines.”

Interviewer: Did you get the idea for the form of Dogville at the same time as the film’s plot?

Lars von Trier: “No, when I wrote the screenplay I saw it as a conventionally formed film. But it felt boring. Then I went on a fishing trip to Sweden, and wasn’t having any luck! Suddenly I had the idea that you could see the whole of Dogville as though laid out on a map. That the whole story could be told on an unfolded map. I’m pretty fascinated by the limitations that unity of space can give you. Another source of inspiration was one of the best things I’ve seen on television: Trevor Nunn’s adaptation of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby (…) What was special about the performance was that it was supposed to look as though it had all taken place on a stage. Nunn edited in shots of the audience now and then, and used other distancing effects too, like the actors occasionally assuming the role of narrator, or the scenery and props being changed in full view. I can also see the influence of one of the classics of American theatre, a play just about every American schoolchild gets to know at some point, Thorton Wilder’s Our Town”

Interviewer: To go back to Brecht, do you see Dogville as a morality play?

Lars von Trier: “Perhaps I do. I often seem to manage to make things quite unclear in my stories, so that the final message is thankfully not entirely obvious. But morality? I’m not sure about that. When all’s said and done, most films are about the fact that man is ultimately an animal who cannot control himself or his environment, but is governed instead by his insatiable desires – and by his stupidity. That’s true of most characters, heroes and villains alike. Fortunately I don’t know any more about man and his nature than anyone else, so I can only come up with a story and shape it according to my own thoughts”

Interviewer: Tom is a remarkable mixture of idealism and calculation

Lars von Trier: “Yes, he’s thoroughly cynical. But then so am I. My first film, the short film The Orchid Gardener, opened with a caption stating that the film was dedicated to a girl who had died of leukaemia, giving the dates of her birth and death. That was entirely fabricated! A complete lie. And manipulative and cynical, because I realized that if you started a film like that, then the audience would take it a lot more seriously. Obviously. Death and sickness are things we have great respect for”

Interviewer: Up to then she has acted as a ‘Goldheart’ character, like the tragic heroines of your ‘Goldheart’ trilogy, Breaking the Waves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark.

Lars von Trier: “Grace acts good-heartedly, but she isn’t – and will not be – a ‘Goldheart’ figure. She has to possess a capacity for something else. I tried two or three tricks to get it to work, but I don’t know if it does. This is where the concept of arrogance comes in, a refusal to discuss things and analyse them. So I was happy to let Grace’s father accuse her of being arrogant. She can’t understand this and asks her father how he can say that. And he replies that she is so irreproachably moral that no one can compete with her for righteousness. She feels superior to the other townspeople, who can’t see the difference between right and wrong”

Interviewer: In your ‘Goldheart’ trilogy you had women who sacrificed themselves for a man, an idea and for a task. There’s a different perspective in Dogville. The female lead, Grace, may be willing to sacrifice herself, but there is a limit to her willingness to be sacrificed, and her protest is violent. You’ve evidently had enough of martyrs now.

Lars von Trier: “Women’s vengeance is more exciting. In some strange way it seems that women are better at embodying and expressing that part of me. The feminine part of me, perhaps! I find it easier to excuse myself and my thoughts if I allow them to be expressed through a woman. If I expressed the same thing through a man, you would only see the brutality and cruelty”

Lars von Trier: “One important feature of Dogville is that I wanted the narrator’s voice to be recorded by a British actor. (John Hurt) I don’t want to hide the fact that the USA is being observed from the outside in this film.”

The film was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, and won several European Film Awards, including Best Director (Lars von Trier) and Best Cinematographer (Anthony Dod Mantle).

Dogville: The Pilot was shot during 2001 in the pre-production phase to test whether the concept of chalk lines and sparse scenery would work. The fifteen-minute pilot film starred Danish actors Sidse Babett Knudsen (as Grace) and Nikolaj Lie Kaas (as Tom). Eventually Lars von Trier was happy with the overall results. As a result, he and the producers decided to move forward with the production of the feature film. It is featured on the Dogville DVD.

Dogville was meticulously brought to life in a studio in Sweden.

The famed introductory scene of Dogville seen from above was in fact generated by a computer from 156 individual shots. The ceiling of the filming studio was actually not tall enough to make one single, wide shot from above possible.

Manderlay (2005) is a sequel to Dogville, but can be watched without knowledge of the first film, though the backstory does add some layers, if you know what has happened previously to Grace.

Dogville has been compared to Fritz Lang's Fury (1936)

Possibly one of Lars von Trier's most unpredictable films, Dogville again sees Lars von Trier experiment with what the medium of cinema is capable of. The theme of community looks at the dangers and joys of belonging to a group, and the film asks challenging questions of the audience about sin, exploitation and justice, which point to today's society. A strong performance by Nicole Kidman in the lead role, the story has an ensemble feel to it and a great cast. As with Dancer in the Dark (2000), I find the film again to be overlong. Common for many of Lars von Trier's films, Dogville is raw, provocative, polarizing, and not for everyone.

My rating 7.8

Lars von Trier quotes:
Trier on von Trier / Stig Bjorkman (2005)

What do you guys think? Was my review useful? Have you watched Dogville (2003)? Share your opinions in the comments below

Concluding my Lars von Trier marathon, I will review the controversial Antichrist (2009)


  1. I agree completely that it is more theatre than film. Not necessarily a bad thing because I love theatre too. There are older films that also feel like plays (although not as obviously as this one): Rope, Harvey and This Happy Breed all spring to mind. I think that because I am used to watching plays I didn't find it overlong and it is one of my favourite Lars Von Trier films.

    1. @keith: I hardly ever go the theatre, so tricky for me to compare. Good point that someone who is used to plays might not find 3 hours overlong.
      I've seen Harvey (1950), not Rope or This Happy Breed. A recent film that was based on a play is Carnage (2011), which I don't think worked too well as a movie, tough to pinpoint why.

  2. A brave experiment but all that rape just got a bit damn much for me. Was very happy when it ended.

    1. @Pete: I agree there are off-putting moments in Lars Von Trier's work, but no worse than the average shoot em up when loads of people get gunned down.
      If you look beyond the "shock tactics" at the big picture, there is a surprising amount of depth to Lars Von Trier's films.

  3. I liked the film in its first hour but then it went the usual Von trier rape-and-humiliation route. I did like the ending though, which at least gave those scenes some purpose.

    1. @Sati: I can relate to what you are saying, nobody likes those horrible things, but it's also part of life I guess.
      Maybe Dogville can show audiences how wrong exploitation is, that's part of the message for me. The film is like a manual how not to behave, full of bad decision making.

  4. I love this film now. Started off hating it as I couldn't get my head round the whole 'play' idea, but on second viewing I was hooked. Not entirely convinced by Von Trier's other output though. I'm still recovering from the harrowing experience that is 'Antichrist'.

    1. @doccortex: Sorry for the belated reply, I must have overlooked your comment!
      I have that sometimes, that a film grows on me on second viewing, or the opposite, that a film I thought was great I subsequently realize is average.
      Ha yes Antichrist is quite shocking, but honestly I didn't think it one of the most horrific except maybe for 30 seconds.

  5. I looove these long reviews of yours. I'm a huge Von Trier fan and Dogville is definitely one of my favorite films of his. But I can completely understand why some (most...?) could be turned off by it. Anyway, thanks for including the interview and all of the expert analysis, I quite enjoyed it.

    1. @Alex Withrow: Any time, good to know you are enjoying my longer reviews. Dogville does shock the viewer towards the end, and I suppose that divides audiences. Dogville is in my top 3 or 4 Trier films.

  6. Chris,
    Did you find it painful to watch this?

    1. @country mouse: Yes, painful in how she was taken advantage of, and how it ended. Even so, I think it's one of Lars von Trier's best films.


What do you think about the post? I look forward to hearing from you. Rest assured I will reply soon.


Related Posts with Thumbnails