Lars von Trier, a Danish director and screenwriter, is one of the most visually distinctive filmmakers. Lars Trier, which is his real name, started making his own films at the age of 11 when he got his first Super 8 camera. Later on, in the National Film School of Denmark, he shot the films “Nocturne” and “The Last Detail” which became the winners of the Munich International Festival of Film Schools. It was in 1995, when von Trier originated the new cinematic movement, which was called Dogme 95. At the heart of this movement were the rules of creating films without using effects or technology. Thus, any unknown filmmaker could make a recognized movie without huge Hollywood budgets. Lars von Trier made history by producing porn movies for a female audience. “Constance”(1998), “Pink Prison” (1999) and “All About Anna”(2005) were extremely successful in Europe.
Von Trier is known for his periodical suffering from depression and multiple phobias. This peculiarity can be traced in all of his movies and it makes his style recognizable. Lars von Trier is famous for his “trilogies”: “The Europe Trilogy”, “Golden Heart Trilogy”, “The US: Land of Opportunities Trilogy” (not finished), “The Depression Trilogy” and “The Kingdom” (not finished). My goal in this paper is to reveal the peculiarities of Lars von Trier’s style in the context of his film “Dogville”, the first part of “The US: Land of Opportunities Trilogy”.
“Dogville” is a drama film that was set in 2003. The cast is rich with such celebrities as Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Chloe Sevigny and Stellan Skarsgard. The film claimed for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2003, but it didn’t become a winner.
The film consists of 156 pictures, shot in the conventional decorations with the help of the computer graphics. The fictitious town Dogville was drawn on the floor of the former hangar. Lars von Trier tells the story, using an extremely minimal film set. “ there aren't any walls. Nor are there any trees or houses or enclosed physical structures of any kind” (Scott 1). The whole Dogville is marked by chalk outlines with labels on them, while the houses, the streets, the landmarks, even the dog symbolizing the town are all invisible. “This allows us to view the whole society - streets, houses and people - from one central point” (Fibiger). The nude stage direction serves to focus the spectator's attention on the acting and narration, and also reminds them of the film's affectation. “To balance the bareness of the setting, the director keeps his camera so close to faces for such long periods of time that we often forget we're watching a setless movie” (Alleva).
Lars von Trier however employs carefully designed lighting to demonstrate some natural effects such as the moving shadows of clouds. The sound effects are used to create the presence of the invisible objects: we hear the dog bark and the doors open and close. The minimalist stagecraft not only puts the acting at the spotlight, it also gives the opportunity for the story to get into the mind of the viewer. Thus, we are not revolved around any definite location. Dogville is not necessarily an American town, it can be any other suburban town, it can be even the spectator’s hometown. Such minimalist scenery was influenced by the theatre of Bertolt Brecht and the black box theatres. Only a few examples of the bare staging can be observed in the cinematograph and “Dogville” is obviously one of them.
The story takes place during the Great Depression. It is represented by the prologue and 9 chapters. Each chapter is followed by a one-sentenced description, which reminds of the chapter headings in many 19th century novels. The story is told by the man. It is John Hurt, a famous British actor, whose voice we here throughout the movie.
Dogville is a small town in the Colorado Rockies with an adult population of 15 citizens. Life here seems to have been reduced to minimum: there are no signs of presence of sports, popular culture or politics. There are actually no signs of the existence of the state, except for the brief appearance of a constable. The life of the Dogvilleans is joyless, and the only entertainment they have is some meetings, headed by Tom Edison Jr., intellectual and romantic, who does his best to teach the inhabitants to become better. The Dogvilleans are ordinary and specific at the same time. They don’t comprehend the social targets, but the methods delivering on them are imperturbable and sacred. They don’t accept the targets and the values of the society, but they abide by the common norms. Everything changes when Grace appears.
One day the stranger enters the town. Who is this woman? Her name is Grace Mulligan, and she escapes from the gangsters who want to kill her. She meets Tom and asks him not to deliver her up. In his turn, Tom sees in her a perfect opportunity to realize his plans about the moral treatment of the citizens and test the town’s virtues. He proposes his fellow citizens to let Grace stay but in return, she has to win every inhabitant’s acceptance and convince them to like her. Grace finds something to do for everyone and soon she feels the town’s sense of brotherhood. But as the time goes by, the difficulty of her tasks increases, and as a result she has to satisfy the insatiable sexual needs of the male Dogvilleans. Grace endures all her sufferings, when finally one day her father comes back for her. Will she continue forgive the human sins, or will she take her father’s side and reconsider her endless love for people?
The attentive spectator might have noticed 2 allusions in the movie. The first is connected with Bertolt Brecht's famous play “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” where the chalk circle frames the dilemma of the ownership of a child. The second one is the allusion to Bible, namely the Old Testament with its principle of “an eye for an eye”. This principle is revealed in the ninth chapter of the movie. The ninth chapter shows another Grace who has power to take revenge and has no mercy. Something changes in her, she suddenly realizes that she needs to teach the Dogvilleans a lesson. None of them is worth staying alive, even children. Grace herself kills all the citizens with machine guns and doesn’t feel pity for Tom Edison, who looks disgustingly pathetic in the teeth of death, with his attempts to come to some agreement with her and stay alive. The terrifying final scene is crucial in the movie. Only Moses, the dog, stays alive. It is obvious that Lars von Trier suggests the idea that people are no better (and probably worse) than dogs.
It is evident from the very beginning that the film is not going to be an ordinary story in keeping with the best traditions of the gangster movies. It is neither going to be a touching legend about the human kindness and the rare type of mutual understanding. Though the spectator is expecting for some joker and is ready for the quick turn, he is astonished by the solution, proposed by Lars von Trier.
At the beginning, Dogville opens its arms in generosity at Grace and in the end, it encloses her in a pious embrace of humiliation and sexual slavery. The problem possibly refers to all of the mankind. The society is dominantly greedy, cruel and envious. In most cases, people deserve what they have. The spectator is definitely on Grace’s side. He sees that these people can’t be cured anyhow: neither disrespect, nor grace and kindness can make them better. It is curious that Lars von Trier doubts not only the sincerity of the Dogvilleans, but also Grace’s ability for the indiscriminate forgiveness and self-sacrifice.
When the film ends, the screen covers with photographs of needy and poor Americans during the period of the Great Depression. “These pictures allude to both Jakob Holt's American “Snapshots” from 1977 and the Bush-era warfare in Iraq” (Fibiger). The spectator sees the sulky despair and the impenetrable misery. The photos are accompanied by David Bowie's song ”Young Americans”. It seems that Lars von Trier alludes to the existence of the reality we would prefer to ignore. It is the photos that strike the audience most of all at the end of the movie and not even the incredible turn of events. Why? Because the photos are the direct proof of the existence of the people shown. The end of the movie is the tangle of the artificial world of Dogville and the real world.
In the “USA – Land of Opportunities” trilogy, “Dogville” is followed by Manderlay (2005), telling about Grace on the plantation. The film reveals such typically American problems, as racism and the legacy of slavery. It was planned to complete the trilogy by “Washington” but it never happened.
The main motive of Lars von Trier’s creative work is to go beyond the scope of everything generally accepted. Being an excellent psychologist, he ruins the hypocrisy, the stereotypes and the emblems, he turns his heroes inside out.
Though the film is criticized for its anti-American message, Lars von Trier himself pointed that “It could be a place anywhere”. “Dogville” is not a story of the definite town, it is the demonstration of the herding mentality of the average citizens. It is unbelievable but von Trier has never been to the United States. Surely, he must have been inspired by the communication mostly with Danish people. Then, why Dogville? Why America? “Because, of course, it couldn't possibly be Denmark. It's America” (Scott 1). Who knows what is going on in the head of this melancholy Dane
Alleva, Richard. “The Melancholy Dane.” Commonweal 131.7 (2004): 19-20. Literary Reference Center. Web. 25 Mar. 2014
Fibiger, Bo. “A Dog Not Yet Buried – Or “Dogville” as a Political Manifesto.” P.O.V. No.16 - FILM & POLITICS. Web. 30 Mar. 2014
Scott, A.O. “”Dogville”: It Fakes a Village.” The New York Times 21 March 2004: Print.