A small, poor, silver-mining village nestled in the Rocky Mountains during, presumably, the Great Depression; a short stretch of shacks and modest houses along an elm-less Elm St.; a population of struggling plebeians papering over their envies and resentments beneath a thin veneer of civilized routine; a listless, self-styled intellectual who defers his crippling writer’s block by attempting to engineer civil betterment; and a beautiful fugitive from the world outside — from cities, money, and power — seeking a simpler, saner life. These are the pieces of the puzzle pushed around and smashed together by Lars von Trier in this bleakest, blackest, and most didactic of his films.
A depressing movie made by an avowedly depressed person, DOGVILLE is also a self-lacerating commentary from a self-absorbed filmmaker, one that casts von Trier’s limitations as a moral philosopher in harsh relief while highlighting the hollowness of his pretensions to teach us about human nature, the United States of America, or anything else that exists independently of his own obsessions.
Filmed on a set that, in its spare, severe geometry, resembles the layout of a board-game — a likeness emphasized by frequent overhead shots of neat little labeled plots — DOGVILLE aspires, over its three not un-punishing hours, to “illustrate” a thesis not just about petty provincial venality, but about people and power in general. It does so while mocking the very idea of such a project. Von Trier’s reductio ad disgustum simultaneously reveals (or imagines it reveals) both the selfish small-mindedness of the denizens of Dogville and the pompous delusions of moral reformers — liberals and would-be artists like town-dreamer Tom (Paul Bettany) and runaway-from-privilege Grace (Nicole Kidman).
Although couched in generic American signifiers, it would be a mistake to describe DOGVILLE as anti-American. Its politics, essentially reactionary, are no different from those expressed more obliquely elsewhere in von Trier’s oeuvre: great evil can always be traced back to lesser evils, the explaining away of which by those over-optimistic about human nature only invites further degradation; the road to hell is paved with good intentions; and power does everyone a disservice when it declines its own exercise. Care to see these lessons dramatized in a parable that swallows its own tale? Treat yourself to DOGVILLE. Bark, bark whimper.
2/14 – 4PM
2/15 – 2:30PM
Museum of Fine Arts
Remis Auditorium, 161
$7 MFA members, seniors, and students // $8 nonmembers