Saturday, 18 July 2015

Dogville - Lars Von Trier - 2003

Danish director Lars von Trier was one of the founding members of the Dogme 95 movement and although Dogville breaks several rules of its Manifesto, it is arguably one of the most effective examples of the movement’s basic principals, casting aside technical gimmickry to focus on character and theme. By setting his entire film in a large studio in which the township of Dogville is marked out with lines on the floor, Von Trier immediately abandons the Dogme demands that film be shot entirely on location and with no artificial light but instead tells his story utilising the distancing effect pioneered by German theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht. This idea sought to constantly remind the audience that they were watching a play in order to prevent emotional engagement with the story and rather provoke an audience into thinking about the ideas raised and recreating a small American town in this way certainly helps Von Trier to be provocative. The director is famously anti-American to the extent that he has never visited the country but the film starts out suspiciously mildly with elegant classical music and the mellifluous voice of John Hurt introducing the eccentric inhabitants of Dogville as they potter about the white lines that mark out their houses on the floor of the stage. Into this closeted environment runs Grace (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful woman fleeing from mysterious men in dark cars, and Von Trier spends the next three hours delicately picking apart the initially welcoming society of Dogville, clearly a microcosm of American society at large, and probing at the dark underbelly he sees underneath. With no visual stimulus the film is undoubtedly hard going particularly since Von Trier is in no hurry to move the story along, happily spending lots of time with Grace just getting to know the town’s inhabitants and going off on tangents to discuss the beauty of the light or other abstracts we can never see, but the distancing effect does work. Forcing audiences to pay closer attention to the township’s changing perceptions of Grace over a long period its very hard to engage with anybody emotionally, even Grace, but the moment when tensions finally do explode and a brutal rape occurs whilst other people calmly wash their hands, the distance makes it all the more shocking. From there the film becomes increasingly harrowing but what makes it more disturbing is that Von Trier never changes the mood or pace; whatever atrocities are committed, the music remains elegant, Hurt’s narration is still meandering but polite and the characters go about their business with largely the same amiable indifference that they did before. When the credits finally roll with photos of poverty stricken Americans scored to Young American by David Bowie its never clear exactly what point Von Trier is trying to make but by displaying such a casual attitude to the violence he clearly perceives to be imbedded in American culture, the director has created a provocative film that is certainly Dogme in spirit if not entirely in practice.

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