It's hard to view Lars von Trier's Dogville without a lot of preconceived notions about the director's well-publicized views on America, and the film's supposed anticapitalist and anti-American sentiments. Every scene, every bit of dialogue, every character is loaded with symbolism both obvious and opaque, and von Trier doesn't so much tell a story as create a screed, making his film nearly as impossible to decipher as it is to truly enjoy. But simply because Dogville is often hard to watch and offers unpleasant, sometimes simplistic, views on capitalism, America and human nature in general, doesn't mean it doesn't deserve to be seen, if only to stare straight into a stark and nihilistic view opposite of one's own.
Because, at its heart, it seems von Trier's film is so bleak and pessimistic in its portrait of a small Colorado town during the Depression that it transcends any specific societal commentary and becomes a simple expression of despair for the whole human race. If that sounds hard to take for the film's three-hour running time, it is. As in his last two English-language films, Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves, Danish writer-director von Trier focuses on a pure, naïve heroine, in this case the pointedly named Grace (Nicole Kidman). On the run from "gangsters" straight out of The Untouchables (early evidence of how broadly von Trier construes American culture), Grace ends up in the isolated title town, tucked away in the Rocky Mountains with only a single road leading in or out.
Or so we're told. In reality, the "town" is a maddeningly artificial construct, a nearly bare soundstage, with chalk outlines instead of buildings and every part of the town ("Elm Street," "Gooseberry Bushes," "Tom's House," "Dog") labeled in block letters, with only the most minimal of representation. For von Trier, who pioneered the Dogme 95 school of filmmaking, a philosophy that advocated only using natural light, hand-held cameras and real locations, this is a startling and deliberate change, one that is as important an element of the film as any other.
Grace is taken in by Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), another pointedly named character who is Dogville's resident slacker-philosopher. He aims to teach the town a moral about openness and acceptance, and sees Grace's appearance as a gift. Right from the start, Grace is put in the position of being used by a town resident, and things only get worse for her from there. For a time, however, Dogville seems like paradise, or more obviously, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a kind and simple place full of kind and simple folk. To repay the townspeople for the risk they take in keeping her from the gangsters, and later the police, Grace volunteers for simple chores, including cleaning, picking apples and caring for children.
Like Breaking the Waves' Bess and Dancer in the Dark's Selma, Grace is pure of heart and motive, and her goodness gets her kicked squarely in the ass, repeatedly, for three hours. As the danger of harboring Grace grows, the town demands more and more work from her for less money, eventually even taking over her body, making her little more than a slave. What follows is torture for Grace and the audience, and you wonder if von Trier hates his heroine as much as he purportedly hates America. Certainly, he's made a career out of martyring his female leads, and what he does to Grace is no less sadistic or possibly misogynistic than what he did to Bess and Selma.
The citizens of Dogville, for all their embodiment in fabulous, legendary actors like Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara and Stellan Skarsgard, are not so much people as representations of people, just as the chalk outlines on the set are representations of buildings. Tom, the one townie whom you'd expect to be fleshed out into more than two dimensions, is just a representative for weak-kneed, hypocritical American liberalism, in the end even worse than simple, cold-hearted capitalistic self-interest.
Grace is not much of a person, either, though a brilliantly understated Kidman imbues her with a level of humanity that von Trier consistently undermines with John Hurt's snide, oppressive narration delivered throughout the film. (It's called "show, don't tell," Lars; look into it.)
Ultimately, it's debatable how much of a handle von Trier, who has never set foot in the U.S., has on America, and more optimistic viewers may debate how much of a handle he has on human nature. But he's clearly got a handle on his own views, and presents them in a way that is impossible to ignore or discount completely. You can loathe Dogville because it represents a concession to the basest ideas of human greed and cruelty, but you can't deny that it makes those ideas feel frighteningly real.