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Dogville
Directed by Lars von Trier
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

First released in France in 2003 and in the U.S. in March 2004, Dogville is the Danish director Lars von Trier's latest film. Famous for his prize-winning films, Europa (1991), Breaking the Waves (1996), and Dancer in the Dark (2000), which featured Icelandic singer-superstar Björk, von Trier is also the guiding force behind the Dogme movement.  This movie, a whopping three hours long, like his others, focuses carefully on a female protagonist who stands in for the naïve and innocent "good woman" so familiar to the plays of Bertold Brecht (who lived in exile in Denmark for a time), from whom von Trier takes his inspiration. Dogville achieves Brecht's ideal of the alienation-effect (or V-Effekt, as it gets called in German);  it forces the audience to distance itself from the characters, to remain emotionally uninvolved in order to think about what is happening. And we do.  The setting is like a stage: the small Colorado depression-era town where the action unfolds is indicated only by chalk markings outlining rooms and buildings; there are a few items of furniture; the lighting is spotlight-harsh; and each character speaks his and her lines deliberately and ponderously.

Nicole Kidman, in a role that proves just how powerfully she can act, plays Grace, a beautiful young woman pursued by gangsters who stumbles into the town seeking refuge. There she meets probably the most loathsome character in the film, Tom Edison (played by Paul Bettany), the ideologue-preacher-ambitious visionary of the town. He dreams of becoming an author, fancies himself a philosopher, and promises to help Grace win the affection of the townspeople. At first they're cautious but friendly; when Grace begs to stay on indefinitely and hide there, they balk. Tom cooks up a scheme. Grace will offer to do things for the townspeople in exchange for their hospitality. Although we already know there's something amiss, Grace persists in seeing the good in the people around her, becoming attached, performing service gracefully and cheerfully, visibly moved by the stories of the people she comes to know.  There are lots of famous actors here; the cool thing is that the director doesn't make a big deal of them-they are actors, playing their roles, not celebrities.

Although at first the townspeople say they have no work that needs doing, pretty soon Grace becomes indispensable and her warm and welcome reception culminates in what she believes is a moment of complete and total acceptance at an Independence day banquet the town holds in the square. There, the blind man Jack (Ben Gazzara), a man obsessed with vision and light, toasts Grace's arrival and testifies to precisely that grace that she confers on the lives of the villagers.

And then, it turns. The gangsters show up looking for Grace, and then the police, and the townspeople become restive. Persisting in her efforts to be likeable, Grace, at Tom's suggestion, doubles the time she spends with each person in the town and doubles the work she performs for them. At this point, most of us begin to feel like she's asking for it, and the second we get this uncharitable thought in our heads-here's a victim just waiting to happen-something does happen to her, and we are stunned to realize that we have just colluded, if only mentally, in the violence that is unleashed against Grace. 

Critics have called this movie, which shows a woman being mercilessly abused by-and then quite shockingly taking revenge on-ordinary poor folks in a small town, anti-American.  At the end, as the credits go by, we see documentary video stills and photographs of American poverty, homelessness, and racism, from the photographs of Walker Evans to shots of police brutality during the Civil Rights demonstrations in the south. I suppose that's why. But ultimately, Dogville wants us to think about how it is that people become desperate, greedy and hateful; how we learn to greet violence with violence; why, in a dog-eat-dog world (and by the way the dog-another chalk outline-is completely innocent here), the marginalized and scapegoated are encouraged to become gangsters to survive. There's a powerful myth in this country about the goodness of ordinary people in what we still think of as a collection of small-town communities. At a time like this, maybe it's a good idea to think about how deadly and deceptive-self-deceptive-that myth really is.