From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Dogville (2003) is a film written and directed by Lars von Trier. It is a parable that uses an extremely minimal, stage-like set to tell the story of Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman), a woman hiding from mobsters, who arrives in the small town of Dogville, Colorado, and is provided refuge in return for physical labor. Because she has to retain the acceptance of every single one of the inhabitants of the town to be allowed to stay, any attempt to put a limit on her service risks driving her back out into the arms of the criminals. She is soon abused by adults and children alike, tries to escape unsuccessfully and is chained like a slave. The film ends with Grace being freed by the mobsters, whose leader appears to be her father. In a reversal of fortune reminiscent of a revenge play, Grace and her father murder every citizen of Dogville.
The story of Dogville is narrated by John Hurt in nine chapters and takes place on a stage with minimalist scenery. Some walls and furniture are placed on the stage, but the rest of the scenery exists merely as white painted outlines which have big labels on them; for example, the outlines of gooseberry bushes have the text "Gooseberry Bushes" written next to them. While this form of staging is common in black box theaters, it has rarely been attempted on film before — the Western musical Red Garters (1954) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) being notable exceptions. 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 such it is heavily influenced by the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. (There are also similarities between the song "Seeräuberjenny" ("Pirate Jenny") in Brecht and Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) and the story of Dogville. Chico Buarque's version of this song, Geni e o Zepelim [Geni and the Zeppelin], deals with the more erotic aspects of abjection and bears striking similarity to von Trier's cinematic homage to the song.) The film does however employ carefully designed lighting to suggest natural effects such as the moving shadows of clouds, and sound effects are used to create the presence of non-existent set pieces (i.e. there are no doors, but the doors can always be heard when an actor "opens" or "closes" one).
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. In 2009, American director Quentin Tarantino named the film as one of his personal top 20 pick among films made during the time of his active career as a director. He also said that had the film been written for the stage, von Trier would have won a Pulitzer prize.
According to von Trier, the point of the film is that "evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right."
The story of Dogville is told in nine chapters and a prologue, with a one-sentence description of each chapter given in the film, in the vein of such chapter headings in many 19th century novels. These descriptions are given below.
Dogville is a very small American town by an abandoned silver mine in the Rocky Mountains with a road leading up to it and nowhere else to go but the mountains. The film begins with a prologue in which we meet a dozen or so of the fifteen citizens. They are portrayed as lovable, good people with small flaws which are easy to forgive.
The town is seen from the point of view of Tom Edison Jr., an aspiring writer who procrastinates by trying to get his fellow citizens together for regular meetings on the subject of "moral rearmament." It is clear that Tom wants to succeed his aging father, a physician, as the moral and spiritual leader of the town.
- In which Tom hears gunfire and meets Grace
It is Tom who first meets Grace Mulligan, who is on the run from gangsters who we are led to believe shot at her. Grace, a beautiful but modest woman, wants to keep running, but Tom assures her that the mountains ahead are too difficult to pass. As they talk, the gangsters approach the town, and Tom quickly hides Grace in the nearby mine. One of the gangsters asks Tom if he has seen the woman, which he denies, and so the gangster offers him a reward and hands him a card with a phone number to call in case Grace shows up.
Tom decides to use Grace as an "illustration" in his next meeting—a way for the townspeople to prove that they are indeed committed to community values, can receive a gift, and are willing to help the stranger. They remain sceptical, so Tom proposes that Grace should be given a chance to prove that she is a good person. Grace is accepted for two weeks in which, as Tom explains to her after the meeting, she has to convince the townspeople to like her.
- In which Grace follows Tom's plan and embarks upon physical labor
On Tom's suggestion, Grace offers to do chores for the citizens—talking to the lonely, blind Jack McCay, helping to run the small shop, looking after the children of Chuck and Vera, and so forth. After some initial reluctance, the people accept her help in doing those chores that "nobody really needs" but which nevertheless make life better, and so she becomes a part of the community.
- In which Grace indulges in a shady piece of provocation.
In tacit agreement, she is expected to continue her chores, which she does gladly, and is even paid small wages in return. Grace begins to make friends, including Jack, who pretends that he is not blind. Grace tricks him into admitting that he is blind, earning his respect. After the two weeks are over, everyone votes that she should be allowed to stay.
- Happy times in Dogville
Things go smoothly in Dogville until the police arrive to place a "Missing" poster with Grace's picture and name on it on the mission house, the mood darkens slightly. The townspeople are divided as to whether they should or should not cooperate with the police.
- Fourth of July after all
Still, things continue as usual until the 4th of July celebrations. After Tom awkwardly admits his love to Grace and the whole town expresses their agreement that it has become a better place thanks to her, the police arrive again to replace the "Missing" poster with a "Wanted" poster. Grace is now wanted for participation in a bank robbery. Everyone agrees that she must be innocent, since at the time the robbery took place, she was doing chores for the townspeople every day.
Nevertheless, Tom argues that because of the increased risk to the town now that they are harboring someone who is wanted as a criminal, Grace should provide a quid pro quo and do more chores for the townspeople within the same time, for less pay. At this point, what was previously a voluntary arrangement takes on a slightly coercive nature as Grace is clearly uncomfortable with the idea. Still, being very amenable and wanting to please Tom, Grace agrees.
- In which Dogville bares its teeth
At this point the situation worsens, as with her additional workload, Grace inevitably makes mistakes, and the people she works for seem to be equally irritated by the new schedule – and take it out on Grace. The situation slowly escalates, with the male citizens making small sexual advances to Grace and the females becoming increasingly abusive. Even the children are perverse: Jason, the perhaps 10-year-old son of Chuck and Vera, asks Grace to spank him, until she finally complies after much provocation (von Trier has noted that this is the first point in the film where it is clear how completely Grace's lack of social status and choices makes her vulnerable to other people manipulating her). She is soon abused by adults as well.
- In which Grace finally has had enough of Dogville, conspires to leave town, and again sees the light of day.
After Tom proposes his idea to help her escape, Vera blames Grace for spanking her son Jason and for seducing her husband Chuck. She wants her punished and humiliated for her supposed acts; Grace invokes how she has taught her children about the philosophy of stoicism but Vera turns that claim against her as well. Grace knows she should escape, and bribes the freight truck driver Ben to smuggle her out of town in his apple truck. En route, she is sexually abused by Ben, after which the truck lumbers only to return Grace to Dogville.
The town agrees that they must not let her escape again. The money paid to Ben to help Grace escape had been stolen by Tom from his father—but when Grace is blamed for the theft, Tom refuses to admit he did it because, as he explains, this is the only way he can still protect Grace without people getting suspicious. So Grace finally becomes a slave, although she has had this status looming over her for much of the film. She will be raped and abused for free by the people of the town.
- In which there is a meeting where the truth is told and Tom leaves (only to return later).
This culminates in a late night general assembly in which Grace—following Tom's suggestion—relates calmly all that she has endured from everyone in town. Embarrassed and in complete denial, the townspeople finally decide to get rid of her. Tom goes to inform her of this, and in the process abuses her trust again. Realizing how locked the situation has become, Tom ends up personally calling the mobsters in order to have her rendered to them. The others agree to this line of action.
Chapter 9 and ending
- In which Dogville receives the long-awaited visit and the film ends
When the mobsters finally arrive, they are welcomed cordially by Tom and an impromptu committee of other townspeople. Grace is then freed by the indignant henchmen, and we finally learn who she really is: the daughter of a powerful gang leader who ran away because she could not stand her father's dirty work. Her father motions her into his Cadillac and argues with her about issues of morality. After some introspection, Grace reverses herself and comes to the conclusion that Dogville's crimes cannot be excused due to the difficulty of their circumstances. Tom, who has become aware that the mobsters pose a threat to himself and the town, is momentarily remorseful, but rapidly descends into rationalization for his actions. Grace sadly returns to her father's car, accepts her father's power, and uses it to command that Dogville be removed from the earth.
The town is destroyed, all its citizens are murdered by the gangsters on direct order from Grace, with the exception of Tom, whom she executes personally with a revolver right after he applauds the effectiveness of her use of illustration. After the massacre, the gangsters hear a barking sound from one of the houses. It is the dog Moses. One gangster proceeds to kill it, but Grace commands that it should live: 'He's just angry because someone took his bone'.
- John Hurt as Narrator
- Nicole Kidman as Grace Margaret Mulligan
- Lauren Bacall as Ma Ginger
- Chloë Sevigny as Liz Henson
- Paul Bettany as Tom Edison, Jr.
- Stellan Skarsgård as Chuck
- Udo Kier as The Man in the Coat
- Ben Gazzara as Jack McCay
- James Caan as The Big Man
- Patricia Clarkson as Vera
- Shauna Shim as June
- Jeremy Davies as Bill
- Philip Baker Hall as Tom Edison, Sr.
- Blair Brown as Mrs. Henson
- Željko Ivanek as Ben
- Harriet Andersson as Gloria
- Siobhan Fallon Hogan as Martha
- Cleo King as Olivia
- Miles Purinton as Jason
1. Dogville Overture (01:52) Vivaldi Concert in G major. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 2. Thoughts of Tom (00:47) Haendel Concerto Grosso in D major. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 3. Happy at Work (02:27) Oboe Concerto Albinoni Concerto for Oboe in D minor. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 4. Dogville Theme (01:02) Vivaldi Concert in G major. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 5. The Gifts (01:13) Flute and cembalo Vivaldi Concerto for Flute in D minor. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 6. Happy Times in Dogville (02:13) Albinoni Concerto for Oboe in D minor. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 7. Fast Motion (01:00) Vivaldi Concert in G major. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 8. The Fog (01:26) Vivaldi "Madrigalesco" RV 139. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 9. Grace Gets Angry (01:37) Vivaldi "Nisi Dominus" RV 608. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 10. Change of Time (00:44) Pergolesi "Stabat Mater". Arr.: Joachim Holbek 11. Manderlay Theme (02:37) Vivaldi Concerto for Basson in A minor. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 12. Mam's Death (01:26) Vivaldi Concert in G minor. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 13. The Child (01:34) Vivaldi "Al Santo Sepolcro" and "Quando Corpus Morietur". Arr.: Joachim Holbek 14. The Swallows Arrives (01:09) Händel Aria. Arr.: Joachim Holbek 15. Young Americans (05:12)