Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Dogville

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

DOGVILLE : BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE

(warning : contains minor spoilers)

 “Lars is mad as a brush, ” he splutters.  “It ’s all about him. You don ’t give a performance at all. Literally the only direction he gives you is:  ‘Down 200 per cent. Up five per cent. Now shout it. Now do it quietly. You are mixing colours for Jackson Pollock. That ’s all you ’re doing. ”
On one occasion, actor and director had a full-on stand-off.  “I refused to shoot a scene because he wouldn ’t discuss it first. He got the camera rolling and I ’m saying,  ‘No, I ’m not doing it. I don ’t understand it. ’ He said:  ‘Just say the fucking line, Paul. Come on, I will shake the camera around, it will look real. I ’ve been getting away with it for years. ’  “

interview with Paul Bettany by Ryan Gilbey, The Independent, 21st November 2003

He who lives by the palme dor dies by the palme dor: having become king of the (arthouse) world at Cannes 2000 with Dancer in the Dark, Lars von Trier was brought down several pegs on the same Croisette two years later when his massively hyped and much-delayed new movie went home conspicuously empty-handed: more doghouse than Dogville, in fact. A jury universally expected to give the Best Actress award to the films star Nicole Kidman instead pointedly chose Marie-Josee Croze from The Barbarian Invasions a fine performance, but in a supporting role much more minor than any previous recipient of a Cannes acting prize.

Plans for Dogvilles worldwide distribution were immediately thrown into chaos: its US release was shifted from 2003 to 2004, with talk of Trier, who had reportedly spent almost of a year on post-production already, returning to the editing suite cut between 30 and 45 minutes out of the three-hour running time (apparently the amusingly Yank-baiting end credits David Bowies Young Americans over classic photographs of poverty-stricken US citizens are for the chop.)

No film, of course, should take so long to knock into shape, and Trier and his many backers (the film is officially an eleven-country co-production!) surely realise as much. Theres far too much riding on Dogville for it to be given up a bad lot, however. Triers reputation hangs in the balance, and he’s too hubristic to admit any kind of defeat: Dogville is supposedly the start of his third trilogy (U.S.A. following Europa and Golden-Heart), and there’s also the small matter of the Ring Cycle which he’s set to direct at Bayreuth 2006.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Dogville isnt really worth all this bother. The film has many incidental pleasures and ends well – but is so woefully, self-indulgently overlong that lopping off 45 minutes probably isn’t going to make much difference. A much more radical edit is required, down to around 90-100 minutes, but even this probably won’t address the fundamental problems of the unconvincing, contrived, schematic story (which doesn’t hold up even as allegory) and its ostentatiously arty and slow execution.

The film is divided into nine chapters and a prologue. In the 1930s, a mysterious young woman named Grace Mulligan (Kidman) takes refuge in the tiny Rocky Mountain town barely even a village of Dogville, home to idealistic would-be writer Tom Edison (Paul Bettany). Edison welcomes the stranger, who seems to be on the run from murderous gangsters, and after initial uncertainty his fellow townsfolk also prove accepting. But it isn’t long before their ingrained suspicion of outsiders starts colouring their view of the apparently innocent and pure Grace and gradually her life becomes a nightmarish ordeal of physical and mental oppression and exploitation

Shot entirely on a single sound-stage, with the towns streets and houses marked out in white paint, Dogville is essentially a filmed play with copious narration provided by an unseen John Hurt. Though Hurts wry contributions are entertaining and amusing (if Eddie Murphy can be Oscar-campaigned for Shrek, Hurt deserves no less), the narration is wildly overused the classic symptom of something having gone badly wrong in the storytelling process. Its reminiscent of what Terrence Malick did when he realised Days of Heaven wasn’t working, and he ended up tinkering to such a degree that Linda Manzs voice-over overwhelmed the actors performances. And it isn’t even as if there’s any kind of ironic disparity between narration and action (as in, say, Malicks Badlands): Trier, via Hurt, merely bombards us with superfluous explication and description.

Were provided with endless material for analysis and discussion, and some critics have taken the bait, racking up many column inches analysing Triers debts to Brecht, debating the films supposed anti-Americanism, teasing out countless allegorical interpretations, and pondering whether Graces travails are intended to represent the life of Christ (if so, her actions towards the end would make her a very Old Testament Jesus, if that makes any sense). And once again, with his heroine enduring all kinds of indignities and affronts, there’s the misogyny question though a more pressing issue is surely to ask when, if ever, he’s going to move on and tell a different story than innocent cutie gets put through the wringer.

Approaching Trier on the level of ideas has always been a mistake, however, and its one that fewer and fewer people seem to be making. Given Triers track record, Dogville might more profitably be addressed as a parody of anti-Americanism (check out the cheesily over-appropriate photo that accompanies Bowies mention of President Nixon in the credits) and/or a parody of Brecht, and/or a parody of the Christ myth and/or a parody of misogyny.

Since Peter Greenaway fell from critical favour around the time of Prosperos Books (1991), there’s been a magus-shaped hole in European cinema and the opportunistic Trier is all too happy to jump into the gap (the equally phoney Stanley Kubrick performed a similar function in worldwide cinema for many years). But while his films are more interesting and watchable than Greenaways over-cooked, over-intellectualised efforts, Trier who, by contrast, seems to throw his elaborate movies together according to the dictates of his whims – is essentially a prankster, a showman, a fraud. Even his name is a joke*.

Being a charlatan isn’t such a bad thing, however, so long as everyone is in on the gag: this is what makes Dancer in the Dark which parodies both musical melodrama and the American legal system such a one-off crazy masterpiece which the average run of sensible, well-behaved arthouse film-makers could dream of emulating. Dogville, however, is essentially no more serious than relatively disreputable horror flicks like Jack Claytons 1982 Ray Bradbury adaptation Something Wicked This Way Comes, or the 1994 movie (directed by Fraser C Heston) of Stephen Kings Needful Things, in which a mysterious, possibly satanic figure (Jonathan Pryce / Max Von Sydow) arrives in a small American town and slowly exposes the hypocrisies behind its citizens respectable facades. A more benign variation is George Pals underrated 7 Faces of Dr Lao from 1963.

The film has the patina of respectability thanks in no small part to a cast that includes a genuine bona-fide megastar, albeit one with a track record of pretentious dabbling in pseudo-arty projects (Kidman), some seen-in-all, understandably (and visibly) bemused American veterans (Lauren Bacall, James Caan), a rising star keen to impress (Bettany) plus a handful of Triers regular partners-in-crime (Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr). The contributions of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shouldn’t be underestimated his already-famous apples shot really does live up to the hype. Such factors have led some observers to commit the cardinal error of taking Trier seriously treating his latest amusingly crackpot melodrama Dogville as a fascinatingly complex work of art chock-full of allegory and meaning. But they’re well and truly barking up the wrong tree.

There are many incidental pleasures in this film including, crucially, the climax, which features an extremely effective and satisfying twist. This is where Trier really reveals himself as gleefully cruel as the Machiavellian Pryce and Von Sydow characters, but more infantile in his maliciousness. Youre tempted to applaud such brazenly nasty audacity and forgive all the films flaws especially as it ends with such a terrifically witty final shot, which it wouldn’t be fair to give away here (except to say that its a zoom towards a previously invisible character suddenly becomes visible for a few brief seconds.)

Trier now probably realises that he’s been rumbled. Could this be the beginning of the end? Itll be interesting to see where he goes from here: intriguingly, Nicole Kidman who’s very savvy about such matters bailed out of Manderlay, the second episode in the U.S.A trilogy, soon after the Cannes debacle. As Greenaway discovered, the tastes of the arthouse world can be as barbarically fickle as the sympathies of Dogvilles citizens. And, unlike his put-upon heroine, Trier won’t be able to rely on daddy to save him from the baying mob.

For a review of the making of Dogville – Dogville Confessions click here

by Neil Young

16th 17th November, 2003

with thanks to Jan Lumholdt, editor of Lars Von Trier : Interviews

* Exactly how and when Trier became von Trier is a topic of some dispute. The name probably came from an uncle who by mistake was called von Trier on a visit to Germany, an event that became a running joke in the Trier family. The younger Triers definitive rechristening is said to have taken place at film school. After one of the teachers, Gert Fredholm, got annoyed at some of the students among them Trier when they wouldn’t leave the editing room in the evenings. Fredholm supposedly pointed out: Youre behaving like arrogant, provincial gentry. Why don’t you add a to your names while youre at it? Which Trier immediately proceeded to do. However, the name Lars von Trier already appears in the credits of the pre-film school works Orchidgartneren/The Orchid Gardner and Menthe la bienheureuse.
Jan Lumholdt

nb my acknowledgement to Mr Lumholdt and my reproduction of the source of the von explanation should in no way be taken as an endorsement by Mr Lumholdt of the views expressed by myself in the above article.
– Neil Young