At this year's Cannes Film Festival Lars von Trier presented his latest film, Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman in the all-embracing lead role. From the outset expectations were high that Lars von Trier would bring the Golden Palm home to Denmark again, but both instructor and producer returned empty-handed. It has since been pointed out that one of the reasons why the film didn't please the international jury could be its obvious criticism of the United States, which especially in the spring of 2003 was vulnerable to criticism due to its self-established role as the world's police officer in Iraq.
The reviewer in the renowned movie magazine Variety, Todd McCarthy, expresses the following opinion in his article about Dogville:
There is no escaping the fact that the entire point of Dogville is that von Trier has judged America, found it wanting and therefore deserving of immediate annihilation. This is, in short, his "J'accuse!" directed toward an entire nation. […]
The identification with Dogville and the United States is total and unambiguous, even without the emphatically vulgar use of pointedly grim and grisly photographs of Depression-era have-nots and crime victims under the end credits, accompanied, as if it were needed, by David Bowie's "Young Americans." Through his contrived tale of one mistreated woman, who is devious herself, von Trier indicts as being unfit to inhabit the earth a country that has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people onto its shores than any other in the history of the world. Go figure.
But before we return to this torrent of words let us first consider Lars von Trier's Dogville as a film.
In brief, the film is about a woman (Nicole Kidman) who, escaping from a bunch of gangsters, ends up in a small town named Dogville. At first the inhabitants aren't keen to let her hide at their peril, and even though she offers to help them with whatever they might need, they refuse her crudely because 'they don't need anything done at all'.
Yet with the help of the budding local writer, Thomas Edison Junior (Paul Bettany), she ends up finding something to do for everyone; and thus having secured her own right to stay she throws herself with great relief upon their insatiable sense of brotherhood. As time goes by she has to commit herself to increasingly difficult tasks such as satisfying the insatiable sexual needs of the male citizens. When one of the inhabitants pretends to help her escape, it is only to retain her in a situation of escalating oppression and abuse - all, as they say, for her own good.
Throughout the film we are reminded of the pursuers outside, and close to the end they finally arrive in the little town of Dogville. At this point the film suddenly converts its run-away theme into a mental dilemma concerning forgiveness and justice - it is really an escape from the ethical demand of this dilemma. In the final scene we witness how the notion of justice from the Old Testament - namely, that of an eye for an eye - a tooth for a tooth - suddenly takes over, and all the citizens of Dogville are exterminated.
Dogville as a mythical universe
It is however not the plot or story of the film that is the centre of attention, but rather the mythical universe that is being shaped throughout the film by means of carefully utilized effects. The recording of the film in a single studio and the exclusive use of chalk marks to define the simple scenographic setting involve a very particular style of minimalism. This allows us to view the whole society - streets, houses and people - from one central point, and we are able to follow the characters into their private spheres behind their respective circles of chalk.
The minimalist scenography not only puts the acting at the centre of attention, it also offers ample opportunity for the story to travel into the mind of the spectator. Thus we are very much interpreters, and this contributes to giving the statement of the film a more universal dimension: Dogville is not just a place in the United States, it is also Rønde or Høje Gladsaxe or any other suburban town that we carry around with us in our minds.
The allusion to Bertolt Brecht's famous play The Caucasian Chalk Circle - wherein the chalk circle frames another dilemma, namely, the ownership of a child - also becomes part of the meanings of the film. Hence, it is possible to draw at least two intertextual parallels: a connection with a story in the Old Testament, where Samuel judges a similar struggle, and another connection with the very theatre of Brecht and the way it disrupts form through the technique of Verfremdung.
As in the theatre, we find ourselves in a setting where the world outside only comes into existence through the lines spoken on the stage. As spectators we are never allowed to doubt that we are back in 1930s America, with gangsters and the mafia and all the other characteristics that cling to this era. This specific period has developed into a cliché throughout film history - which is why I'd rather consider Dogville as a metonym for a given kind of society characterized by lawlessness than as a realistic depiction of part of the United States.
But the story is not a standard piece of drama for us to watch. As in the theatre, von Trier makes use of another trick, namely, that of staging a narrator. This results in a mix between a dramatic and an epic form with slight didactic overtones. Many reviewers have argued that this specific narrator is really the true main character of the film. John Hurt plays the narrator and everyone recognizes his unique ability to express emotion and distance at one and the same time (cf. the previously mentioned technique of Verfremdung).
Furthermore, the cadence of the speaker's voice helps support the slow tempo of the film, giving it a certain character of non-contemporaneity. We find ourselves somewhere beyond time and space, in a kind of "always" and "everywhere" - something which characterises the myth as opposed to the fable.
The ethical demand
The fundamental myth of the film draws its substance from the Bible. Hence, Grace represents the very meaning of 'grace' as she unconditionally surrenders herself to the unreasonable demands of the Dogville inhabitants. She constitutes the notion of absolute, boundless love, and as many reviewers have already pointed out there are obvious allusions to Jesus, who also - as a result of his unconditional, boundless devotion - ends up being sacrificed on a cross. But even though Grace is shackled to her bed/crucified, this is not where we find the main point of the film - for this lies in the dialectic between the Old and the New Testament.
The ethical demand of The New Testament derives from the famous maxim that you should turn the other cheek, whereas the ethical demand of the Old Testament is based on that the maxim of an eye for an eye. Grace is on the run from this dilemma, stretched out between her father's merciless attitudes and her own more humanistic preference for grace and understanding. For a while the dilemma is resolved by her fleeing her father's demands and wholly devoting herself to Dogville. But the way things progress, it soon becomes a true challenge to turn the other cheek, for how far will the humiliation go?
So when the father and his gangster friends appear towards the end of the film, Grace is ready to reconsider her ethical dilemma: do the inhabitants of Dogville deserve any more gifts of grace or should they be eradicated without mercy? Grace chooses the attitude of justice from the Old Testament, and with assistance from her father she mows down all the citizens with machine guns. Even the sins of the father are passed on to the children, and in the terrifying final scene Grace herself kills the children who were once in her care.
It is no coincidence that the city of Dogville has a dog called Moses. Moses is drawn in chalk on the stage floor, but in the very last shot the chalk drawing is 'morphed' into a living dog. It is now the Law of Moses that prevails in what is left of Dogville.
In another perspective the film may be seen as presenting the ethical dilemma of good and evil, and thus the terribly violent scene at the end is meant to call into question the Old Testament. Pursuing this idea one could say that the film really returns to the primary myth of Christianity, namely, the Fall of Man. The Fall of Man has two interpretive outcomes, either "we need to learn to differentiate between good and evil" (the pietistic interpretation) or "we need to know good and evil" (the existential interpretation). The same goes for Lars von Trier's Dogville.
The film as a political manifesto
The reason why the political reaction to the film has been so harsh is not so much because it takes place in a town somewhere "over there", and it is not at all due to the mythological tenet of the film. Under the credits at the end of the film von Trier implements a series of photographs (cf. the review quoted from Variety) . These pictures allude to both Jakob Holt's American Snapshots from 1977 and the Bush-era warfare in Iraq. The use of photographs at the very end of a film that so persistently bases its whole assertion of reality on simple chalk lines seems especially significant and importunate.
It seems as if von Trier had a last-minute fear that his audience wouldn't relate the more existential theme of the film to their own political reality. But in clearly underestimating his spectator I think Trier really undermines the political statement of the film.
With the insertion of the American snapshots the film shifts from being a mythically founded metaphor to an analogy. In a metaphor part of reality is replaced by an image, the coherence between the two remaining implicit; In contrast, in a parable or analogy the same coherence is somewhat more explicit (Gall Jørgensen 1996, p. 71). Gall defines the metaphor more formally as "a substitution which on the basis of a semantic equivalence replaces one element with another" (Gall Jørgensen 1996, p. 76). Furthermore, he states that the most important quality of a metaphor is that it is productive and that it can uncover new aspects of a well-known phenomenon by describing it in a new light.
Designers of a human-computer interface (HCI) tend to draw on metaphors. In relation to HCI it is common to talk about a generative utilization of metaphors (Halskov, 1994), which means that the metaphor is able to pave the way for new dimensions in relation to the reality it depicts. Donald Schön (1979/84, p. 255) also operates with the generative or process-oriented perspective, taking the social sciences as his own specific starting point:
In this second sense, "metaphor" refers both to a certain kind of product - a perspective or frame, a way of looking at things - and to a certain kind of process - a process by which new perspectives in the world come into existence."
Schön links the use of metaphors with the notion of "problem setting" in the social sciences. Here, in contrast to the fragmentation or division of a given phenomenon, a metaphor can be applied to grasp a particular meaning or function of a phenomenon. Thus, I see a very close connection between Donald Schön's understanding of the metaphor and my own understanding of Dogville.
In the same anthology on metaphors in which I found the article by Schön, Hugh G. Petrie (Petrie 1997/84) discusses the use of metaphors in a didactic context, adding a Piagetan learning perspective to the subject. The notion of accommodative learning implies that it isn't possible to fit new knowledge into existing cognitive schemas, and therefore the learning process consists in continually creating new schemas. Similar to accommodative learning, generative metaphors make us look into new angles and dimensions of a given subject.
Taking this further, in my view the form of the analogy generally supports assimilative learning. In assimilative learning new knowledge is put into already familiar schemas (see Illeris 1999, p. 27). Consequently, the crucial breach in von Trier's Dogville lies in the transition from metaphor to analogy. The film challenges our political schemas by questioning right and wrong in relation to the choices we - politicians as well as other people - are forced to make. This applies to the way we interact in everyday life, to the treatment of at-risk youth and to immigration policies - some of the areas in which I'm currently engaged as a politician.
The revolutionary aspect of today's politics lies in maintaining an ethical dimension, which prevents us from becoming small spin doctors like Tom Edison in Dogville, who is always trying to make everything seem like it is in everyone else's favour, but who at the same time never ceases - the true liberal that he is - to put himself centre stage.
So instead of detaching itself from previous bindings the dog ends up being buried. By underestimating the risk of using analogies in a political statement, von Trier firmly locks the perception of his audience into preconceived stereotypes. The form of the analogy thus seems deeply reactionary!
Translated and edited by Lisbet Fibiger, MA
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Brecht, Bertolt: Om Tidens Teater. Gyldendal 1966.
Gall Jørgensen, Keld: Stilistik. Håndbog i tekstanalyse. Samlerens Bogklub 1996.
Illeris, Knud: Læring - aktuel læringsteori i spændingsfeltet mellem Piaget, Freud og Marx. Roskilde Universitetsforlag 1999.
Madsen, Kim Halskov: "A Guide to Metaphorical Design." In Communications of the ACM. Vol. 37, no. 12, 1994, pp. 57-62
Petrie, Hugh G.: "Metaphor and Learning." In Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Antony . Cambridge University Press 1979/84, pp. 438-461.
Schön, Donald A.: "Generative Metaphor: A Perspective of Problem-Setting in Social Policy." In Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Antony. Cambridge University Press 1979/84, pp. 254-283.
Reviews, articles, etc.
McCarthy, Todd: "Dogville." Variety, 19 May 2003.
Monggaard, Christian: "Menneskets værste sider ifølge Trier." Information, 20 May 2003.
Piil, Morten: "Skarp USA-reaktion på Dogville. " Information, 21 May 2003.
Piil, Morten: "I køterens tegn." Information, 4 June 2003.
Qvortrup, Lars: "Dogville i Nordjylland." Information, 18 July 2003.
Rechtshaffen, Michael: "In Competition." The Hollywood Reporter. Com, 22 May 2003
Vestergaard, Jesper: Illustreret klassiker. CinemaZone.
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