(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Grace (Nicole Kidman) arrives in the isolated town of Dogville on the run from gangsters. The townspeople agree to hide her. However, when outsiders start looking for the fugitive, the locals make demands of Grace in exchange for the risk of harboring her. But Grace has a secret and it is a dangerous one. Dogville may regret it ever decided to bare its teeth…
– From DVD Production Notes
The first time I saw Dogville it scared me. I don’t mean that in a shocking, horror movie sort of way, but in how much I saw of myself in its protagonist, particularly her behavior and expectations. In the following months I had recurring dreams where I was living in Dogville with its empty stage and chalkish outlines, surrounded by false friends and the constant threat of harm or exploitation. Like The Dreamers (which was released the same year), the film became entangled with my personal experiences, encapsulating one of the hard-earned lessons I was learning at the time: others won’t always treat you the same as you treat them. Making that assumption can be lead to betrayal and a lot of pain.
On the other hand, Dogville is more than that. It is about the death and deconstruction of an ideal, a common theme that runs through several of Lars von Trier’s films. It is also his interpretation of America and the first installment of his as-of-yet unfinished USA: Land of Opportunities trilogy. Over ten years later the story of Grace remains unfinished.
If you scratch at the surface it’s easy to speculate why. The ideas teeming within Dogville are abstract and difficult to swallow, especially since they’re taking place in such an unusual environment. Everything is (literally) exposed and laid bare for the audience, revealing an unsettling parable about a community valuing money and servitude over human life. At the center of the action is an individual whose only intention is to be her idea of a good human. “I want to make the world a better place,” Grace admits near the end, but by then she is taking drastic measures to make it that way.
The savagery of Dogville is psychological- and perhaps philosophical and sociological- more than anything else. On a superficial level it could be seen as misogynistic, but I’ve always seen it as a meditation on vulnerability. If it had centered on a white man in the 1930s, it would have been far from believable. A minority? It might have worked, but the effect wouldn’t have been the same (besides, minorities were the focus of von Trier’s follow-up, Manderlay). Grace is as vulnerable as she is strong, like many of von Trier’s heroines, and when she commits a drastic act of violence it’s an act of protection more than retribution. Her journey and status in life makes it all the more believable.
Von Trier wrote the role of Grace specifically for Nicole Kidman, planning on having her star in all three films. At the time of Dogville‘s release I had seen her in many films playing a variety of characters, but there’s something about her portrayal of Grace that’s different. The term “luminous” is shopworn and almost meaningless when applied to an actress’s performance, but I can’t think of a better way to describe her in this film. She was thirty-six at the time of its release, but the character of Grace is ageless as she is elusive.
Playing this character was taxing on Kidman in a way she had never experienced before. In fact, the entire process of shooting was challenging to the entire ensemble cast, both on and off set. Von Trier alienated most of them and even attempted to turn them on one another, leading to tensions on set he likened to a “mutiny.” This was documented in the press, post-filming interviews and even a mid-production press conference in which Stellan Skarsgård claimed von Trier had “destroyed” Kidman. There was talk of shouting matches between the director and star in the woods, of tears on set and more than one sexual humiliation.
Out of this strife came the documentary Sami Martin Saif’s Dogville Confessions (2003), which is just as much as an exposé on a difficult shoot as a companion piece to the film. And I can’t help but mention it because the atmosphere on set was instrumental to the finished product, and in particular Kidman’s performance.
Later on she stated, “[While filming] I kind of stayed in character. Lars had written the role for me and I think I just connected with her implicitly. There was something about the way she tries to help this community and her desire to be of service and to help. That was the way in which I could connect with her.”
That’s diplomatic at best, but true to Grace’s nature. It makes her my favorite character Kidman has ever played, mainly because of that vulnerability. She is degraded and hurt by the townspeople, yet her empathy and tolerance keep her going. She also proves more insightful than her love interest, Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), which spurs his resentment and betrayal. Even worse, she knows it.
As unpleasant as Grace’s life lessons are, the narrative ultimately proves she is a survivor. What’s more, she hasn’t lost her compassion or humanity, watching tearfully as the town of Dogville is reduced to ashes. She doesn’t have the cowardice to deny her choices, especially after watching the town refuse to take responsibility for theirs. They have forced her to grow up.
“Some things you have to do yourself,” she explains to her father (James Caan), and this admission separates her from the von Trier heroines that preceded her. She is literally the last one left standing and able to walk away, moving on to another chapter of her life.
I still take that ugly lesson to heart, as well as final narration on the ordeal: “Whether Grace left Dogville, or on the contrary Dogville had left her and the world in general, is a question of a more artful nature that few would benefit from by asking and even fewer by providing an answer. And nor indeed will it be answered here.” It not only rings true, but reminds me of one my favorite maxims, Forgive, but don’t forget. In the case of surviving something like Dogville, it would be impossible to do.