With the controversy being caused by Antichrist and my ensuing need to see it, I felt the need to go through some of Von Trier’s earlier works and re-watch them to pick up on those factors that reoccur often.
Dogville is perhaps one of the most successful amalgamations of his ideas. As with Bjork in the uncertain “Dancer in the Dark”, it is evident from the first moment that the director loves martyrdom. The only virtues shown by the supporting cast begin with self but unlike many of his Trier’s other pieces, he has found a new element to abuse: compassion. Granted, his view of compassion would be more akin to a slave master giving his victim a piece of wood to bite on throughout the flogging.
The bullying of the piece is carried out by a large ensemble cast including Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Stellan Skarsgard and Paul Bettany, who treat the recent arrival of Grace (Nicole Kidman) with a large dose of ignorance and hypocrisy. Kidman manages to evoke a silent and relentless innocence signifying the most subtle and perhaps least fussy work so far in her career. Von Trier seems to believe that Americans are best portrayed with their shortcomings on display, stripping away almost everything he considers to be unnecessary – Including most of the set. When a character seeks to do something as simple as open a door, the action is mimed and sound effects are added offstage. The names of each home are drawn in chalk on the floor outside each of them, similar to the outline placed around a fresh murder victim. Essentially, the set becomes little more than a soundstage serving as a Depression-era mining town with a population of 15 adults and half as many children. With no barriers dividing them and an equally overbearing voiceover provided by the enigmatic John Hurt, the atmosphere manages to remain relentless and stifling without ever seeming bloated; something rather peculiar for a movie that comes in at over three hours long.
At 178 minutes in length, such a minimalist piece should almost implode upon itself, especially when one considers that the majority of the story is based upon the increased objectification heaped upon an ever obliging Grace; nothing she can do is sufficient to fill their need to feel charitable and just, becoming first a social and literal rape at the hands of the townsfolk. Religious righteousness and contradictions are never satisfied despite Grace’s need to prove herself in a farce that seeks to balance this against the greed born from the American dream betraying Von Trier’s obvious socialist sentiments. Despite all these potential issues and some awfully staged credit photos, this is a genuine work of art.