Great cinema (and great art, in general) comments on the human condition. Dogville does more than comment. It raises questions. It depicts the human experience in barren conditions. It conjures up characters and situations that are as complex and human as real life. Lars von Trier’s film is a tragic and lifelike parable with the ability to connect with audiences all around the world. Its raw emotional power comes mostly from its story, but there are plenty of contributing factors which make Dogville a masterful film.
In an admirably restrained performance, Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a fugitive from the mob who happens upon the small, isolated town of Dogville. In desperation, she agrees to work in exchange to live among the townspeople. Of course, complications arise and Grace eventually questions whether or not Dogville is safe.
It was a bold move to shoot this story on a soundstage instead of a more realistic outdoor set. While the choice risks losing audience interest, the stage serves as an ideal setting. The invisible wall surrounding the town produces a sense of detachment from the outside world. Furthermore, the lack of visual detail only makes the tale even more universal and timeless. When I began the film, I thought the use of the stage would limit the movie’s effectiveness. Maybe Dogville would have been more potent with a ‘normal’ set. I believe the film works anyway.
With restrictions such as the set, there is even more pressure on the cast to deliver convincing performances. Fortunately, Kidman is surrounded by a group of talented and experienced actors and actresses: Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Harriet Andersson, and Stellan Skarsgard are a few. The collective believability of their work here has the ability to convince audiences to accept the movie’s eccentricities.
Dogville may come across as ‘uncinematic’ to some. The film is narrated by John Hurt in a voice-over that sounds like a reading of some classic 20th century novel. In addition to the use of a stage, the story also concerns itself with human nature and moral questions in a way that invites comparisons to Shakespeare. There is also an abundance of dialogue, but as Sidney Lumet once declared, “Dialogue is not uncinematic.” What makes Dogville a great film is the way the camera responds to the performers and the way the editing fills the movie with tension like air in a balloon.
Though it may sometimes feel more like a play than a movie, Dogville still makes for a compelling and unique viewing. Without a doubt, it is a challenging and draining affair as well, running just under three hours long. Luckily, von Trier’s vision remains a success due to its actors, its screenplay, and its excellent camerawork. Even though the film becomes a little sloppy in the final act, it is not enough to prevent an ultimately rewarding cinematic experience.