Dogville (2003)


General Information:

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15  178 min  –  Drama  –  13 February 2004 (UK)


Lars von Trier


Lars von Trier


Nicole Kidman; Paul Bettany; Lauren Bacall


Dogville (2003)

Dogville (2003)

A woman called Grace (Nicole Kidman) is on the run from a group of dangerous gangsters. She runs into a village called ‘Dogville’ and has to bargain with the people in the village to see if they will hide her from them. However, as the plot unfolds, the residents of Dogville are just as malicious and evil as the gangsters looking for Grace are…


You’d have to be absolutely insane to come up with the style in which this film involves, and completely daring to see it through. Fortunately for controversial and always experimental, Lars von Trier, it works. Really well.

Dogville is less of a film but rather a piece of filmed theatre. The setting itself is in a small village called ‘Dogville’. In the centre of the village is a road and either side of it are buildings and houses. Apparently there is a beautiful view surrounding the area. I use the word ‘apparently’ because we cannot see it. Dogville is shot inside a soundstage, and the walls surrounding this ‘village’ are black. None of the houses have walls, instead there are lines drawn onto the floor. Characters have to mime knocking on a door or opening it because there are no doors. There are some gooseberry bushes, which we cannot see, but rather it is drawn onto the floor, and characters interract with air itself pretending that they are there. There is a dog, who again, is simply drawn onto the floor, occassionally we hear a sound-effect of a dog – but we are very much aware that this is a sound-effect. When it is day-time, the walls of the soundstage are white, when it is night-time they are black. Other elements of light are created by spotlights.

Dogville (1)

Dogville (1)

Dogville (2)

Dogville (2)

The film is heavily influenced by the theatre practitioner, Bertolt Brecht – a man who believed that theatre should not emotionally draw the audience in, but rather distance them, alienate them, so as the audience questions constantly what they are seeing and thus are intellectually challenged throughout. Why, Brecht was so anti-emotion I do not know. I like the idea of showing him a Steven Spielberg film and watching his face twitch until finally his his brain turns into goo and slowly drips out of his ears and nose, simultaneously. Or something. Either way, this is an absolutely fantastic film in terms of audience-response. We are constantly reminded that none of this is real: that the characters are played by actors, that the world created is actually merely props inside a soundstage, that all the lines have been written – due to this, it is partly an investigation of the elements that make of narrative art forms, mainly: theatre and film. But this is merely subtextual reasons of how the style aids the messages of the film.

Bertolt Brecht (1898 - 1956)

Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956)

The film is a critique on right-wing America, a burningly vicious satire about the American dream which would quite happily rampage and trample on the white picket fence itself. Grace, a brittle innocent blonde-haired girl, excellently played by Nicole Kidman, arrives in the village running away from gangsters. There is a sense of unnerve already, do the villagers want her there or not? Is she a risk to them? I would say ‘yes’ to both, but some audience members may say ‘no’ – after all, the Brechtian influences on this film make the viewing experience very objective. In a sense, there is perhaps no definitive message, as whilst watching, we are forced to come to our own conclusions. I get a sense that because this is all filmed it is more distancing – it is often a technique to mime certain elements in theatre, and thus the audience is used to it (and perhaps even expects it). But it is so effective here, because we do not even imagine this technique being used in film. It subverts all expectations.

Later on, the police arrive, and they pin up wanted posters. Tom the moral voice thus far of the film calls a meeting, Grace leaves, and they all vote on whether Grace should stay or not. What we have here is a sharp dissection of democracy itself, delving into how political spin and personal gain are all part of the decision itself. There is a sneering hypocrisy to it all. Can a real democratic society exist? Or will it always be hindered by matters of selfishness and pride?

Either way, she is allowed to stay.

Later on in the play, more threats occur, and the tension within the community builds up again. There are more meetings, more effortless dissections on society. Now the people of Dogville want Grace to stay, but for a price. She has to work longer hours, work harder, and perform more helpful tasks for more people. Following this, she is essentially forced to stay by brutal means which I will not give away. What we have here is an excellent examination of the human condition: of how humans are essentially greedy, selfish and will progressively do anything to get what they want – of course, society mimics this harsh nature, because society is essentially a group of people. Dogville knows this, and this is what makes it a masterpiece.

Also of note is Nicole Kidman’s astonishing performance. She is an actress that I have always admired for her impecabble subtleties. As I have said countless times before, the best actors are those that do not try to act. There are moments when she will stand and stare into the distance. By acting with her eyes, she becomes a real person. This is something I admire in Lars Von Trier, ensuring that the acting is that of the utmost believability. He blends emotion with coldness. Intimacy with distancy. By combining depth of the acting with the brechtian conceit, we have a film which is emotionally engaging as well as intellectually challenging.

Nicole Kidman's subtle, but intense performance in Dogville (2003)

Nicole Kidman’s subtle, but intense performance in Dogville (2003)

As the play progresses, Grace is not only psychologically abused but also sexually abused. There is a scene where she is raped on the floor. Lars von trier shoots this at a distance, from the other end of the ‘street’. Of course, in Von Trier’s world, the audience can see everything that occurs. The message being, on the outside things appear to be innocent and normal, but dig deeper, go through the walls is a world of oppression, abuse, hypocrisy, and absolute evil. People may not believe that this sort of thing would occur – but then again, in the real world, the walls aren’t stripped away for us to see what really occurs behind closed doors.

Lars von Trier makes this message so utterly clear that it is impossible not to leave the viewing utterly depressed, but more importantly: questioning the society that we live in. Has anything really changed?


A masterpiece of invention and originality. Here is a film which style aids its substance to great effect; and blimey, this film has substance. It is about society, the human condition, and Art itself. Dogville will greatly benefit repeated viewings: there will be more taken from it after each watch, and this makes it even more the masterpiece.


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