My mother is in town visiting for my birthday celebrations. Since she lives in Saskatoon and the good movies take forever to get there, she wanted to hit the theatres while she was here. So we went to see Dogville, Lars Von Trier’s newest film.
In a nutshell, the plot is this: Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, is on the run from gangsters for reasons we don’t know. She arrives in Dogville, a small town in the Depression. Tom, a man who prides himself on acting as the moral concience of the town, rescues her and offers to help her win the town over so that she can hide out there indefinately. The town slowly accepts her as one of their own, but in order to pay her debt to the town for harboring a fugitive with such a dangerous past, Tom gets her to do work for everyone in the town. This work slowly escalates as she becomes more and more exploited, becoming the scapegoat for all the sins of the town.
To really thoroughly examine this film, you MUST talk about the ending. However, I know people get mad when someone ruins the ending for them, so I’ll just talk a little about the film as a whole and the themes it presents, and then go to a spoiler warning and finish my review.
First of all, I had some misgivings about Lars Von Trier making yet ANOTHER film about a woman sacrificing herself or being sacrificed and victimized. I’m not sure what his obsession with that particular theme is or whether it has honorable intentions. So my mother and I geared ourselves up for the possibility of watching a woman go through hell for no particular reason. And watching the movie, you do feel as though you’ve been pushed too far. At a certain point you wonder why you’re watching the movie, why you’re complicit in watching someone be abused and used.
The movie raises questions about our own basic human morals. We try to live higher lives, to say that forgiveness is essential to well being, that people are essentially good. And yet in all of us there is the capacity to use and abuse another person, to exploit someone for our own gain. That’s something we don’t really want to think about.
*******************SPOILER ALERT!!!! SKIP TO MY BIRTHDAY MESSAGE IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE END OF DOGVILLE!!!************************
The other troubling question which is raised comes at the end. All of us have a breaking point, all of us have the capacity for violence. Grace has become the dog of Dogville, chained to a metal wheel she drags about, with a bell on her collar, she’s being sexually exploited by all of the men in Dogville, except the man she loves, Tom, because she keeps telling him she wants it to be special. He’s not really helping her, though he thinks he is. When he comes to her saying it’s time for them to be lovers because everyone else has had her, she says “Well yeah, go ahead and do it, but you have to be like them and threaten to turn me in to the gangsters.”
So he calls the gangsters. And when they arrive, suddenly we know why she has been on the run from them. She’s the mob boss’s daughter, and she wanted to live a life where people were good to each other and there’s room for forgiveness. But her father tells her she’s so arrogant. She believes in the best in people, but she doesn’t expect it of them. She doesn’t think they need to answer for their actions.
By this point in the movie, my mother and I both hated everyone in Dogville. We wanted the worst things to happen to the people. And suddenly, Grace makes a decision, and in a blaze of gun fire and gasoline Dogville is obliterated, with a special payback to a mother who’s husband had repeatedly raped Grace. It’s shocking, yet feels so righteous. And that’s what’s intense about Dogville. She shoots the man she’d loved in the head, saying some things you have to do yourself. The sole survivor is the dog.
Once I lived in a small logging and ranching town called Merritt, where I was sexually harrassed everyday that we lived there. I was about 13. I imagine that times ten for Grace in Dogville and I completely understand why she’d decide to commit mass slaughter. And as someone who identifies as a pacifist, yeah, it’s unsettling. We all have a breaking point, we would all go to war or flip out if we’re treated like dogs for long enough.
I asked my Mum, if you were in Grace’s position, would you have done the same? Yeah. Fuckin’ rights yeah.
And the other interesting thought, the other unsettling awareness, is that we treat people badly because we percieve them as being powerless. But what about them makes us believe they have no power? How can we be sure? It made me think about Western foreign policy, how we treat developing nations. Meanwhile there are people like Grace there, people with access to a lot of growing righteous anger and weapons.
And to take it back to a simpler level, this question of forgiveness. We throw it around a lot, how people are better if they can forgive. But we have forgotten that people have to work for our forgiveness, someone has to recognize that a wrong was committed and try to atone for it. If we live as a society where we constantly are forgiving people, then no one has to see the consequences of their bad actions. I mean, how is a daughter supposed to just forgive a father who sexually abused her her entire life, for one example. Why should she? Maybe it’s better for her not to forgive.
And finally, the most troubling realization after seeing Dogville is that human nature is too complex for us to ever live in a utopia, in a world free of war and violence and exploitation.