The Rocky Path To Morality
(Warning: May contain spoilers!)
“DOGVILLE” screamed the big black bold letters in our foyer. I wondered why it needed so much publicity. It was a Nicole Kidman film, after all – people would come to see it. Right?
Once we had all parked ourselves down on the jute chairs of our auditorium, we were literally begged by the presenter to “give the film a chance”. I wondered what was so strange about the film that we were expected to walk out. Now I’ve seen some strange films in my lifetime, so I figured that if I could sit through Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, I could sit through anything. The only film that I watched partially was Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex, because I found it unwatchable. I wondered if Dogville was something like that.
Turns out, directror Las von Triers is pretty good at creating an atmosphere out of barely anything. As a co-founder of Dogme 95 – that class of filmmakers who refuse to make Hollywood-style big-budget productions with expensive special effects – Triers shot Dogville without any sets and bare minimum props. The film stands out right from frame one, in that it is shot on high-definition video and not film. The barren set with its markings designating the streets and homes is reminiscent of that little map that accompanies plays. The entire idea of bringing theatre on screen seems crazy but Von Triers pulls it off.
The story, told in nine chapters with a prologue, is about a beautiful fugitive, Grace (Kidman) who is on the run from gangsters. She arrives in the isolated village of Dogville, which has only 15 residents. The self-appointed leader of this village is Tom (Paul Bettany), an aspiring writer who is a habitual procrastinator as well. He hides Grace, and when the pursuing gangsters arrive, lie to them about her presence. The boss gives him a number to call if she shows up, and they leave.
Tom holds a meeting with the townspeople, and in return for their harbouring Grace, she agrees to work for them.
She spends time with blind old Jack McKay (who pretends he’s not blind), helps Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård) harvest apples, looks after Chuck’s and Vera’s children and teaches them, nurses the quadriplegic June, and helps the prim Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall, who still retains “The Look” and that sexy voice) tend her gooseberry bushes. As the days pass, the townspeople begin to like her. A “missing” poster of Grace does not deter them much. She and Tom begin to fall in love, and until the night she joins them in the 4th of July celebrations, things seem to be looking up.
However, the cops arrive just as they’re sitting down to eat, and while Grace is hidden, they replace the “missing” poster with a “wanted for bank robbery” poster. Even though Grace is clearly innocent (she was with them at the time of the robberies) Tom decrees that she must work longer hours for less pay because they are now harbouring a wanted fugitive. Grace is not very happy but agrees.
Now the residents start to show their true colours – all the women are abusive to her and all the men, except Tom, make sexual advances towards her. Little Jason takes perverse pleasure in getting Grace to spank him by threatening her that he’d tell his mother that she did it even if she doesn’t. It goes downhill when Chuck returns home one night and rapes her. He continues to rape her while harvesting apples, and unfortunately they are seen. An angry Vera thinks she has seduced her husband, and takes revenge. She tells Grace that she will break two of the seven porcelain figurines that Grace purchased with her payment, and if she can live up to the Stoicism she taught Vera’s children, she’ll stop. Grace breaks down, and Vera smashes all the seven figurines in pure spite.
Grace decides to flee, and tries to do so with the help of Tom and Ben. Tom steals his father’s money and gives it to her. Ben takes her to town, but backs out when he sees the police. To protect her, he takes rape as payment. Exhausted, Grace falls asleep, and when she wakes up she finds that Ben has brought her back to Dogville. And since Tom cannot admit to stealing his father's money for risk of being expelled, Grace is branded the thief.
She is now bound with a heavy iron collar with a bell, much to her pain and humiliation. She is regularly raped by all the menfolk except Tom. Finally, Tom gets Grace to address the village at the local hall and she calmly recounts the horrors she has suffered at their hands. The villagers are in denial and decree that she must be sent away.
That night, Tom tries to make love to her, but Grace turns him down. Partly furious at the refusal and partly knowing that he is stooping to the same level as the other men, Tom decides to keep to his morals and calls the gangster who had given him the card. Then they lock Grace up in her house.
Soon, the gangsters arrive – and the film ends with an unexpected twist. Turns out, Grace is the daughter of the boss and has run away because she cannot stand his line of work. He tells her she is being arrogant by forgiving the village people their abusiveness thinking she is above all that. Grace mulls over her ordeal and realises this is true, and the townspeople finally earn her wrath. Her mobsters shoot and kill every one of them in cold blood. Grace exacts revenge from Vera in particular by instructing the mobsters to kill Vera’s children first as she watches, and stop if Vera can hold back her tears. Finally, Grace herself kills Tom, the last man standing. The only living thing left in the village is a dog, Moses.
The film is set in 1930s USA, and portrays the changing face of human morality in times of conflict. The minimalist sets and the absence of any walls, with only chalk-like words demarcating the environment, evokes a weird atmosphere that combines the surreal and the phantasmal. The absence of slick editing and the irregular transition of camera angles, not to mention the fact that it’s shot on video, also add to the theatrical effect. But the wonderful thing is that this seemingly bizarre treatment leaves plenty of room for the actors to emote, helped to a great extent by the barren, smoky atmosphere that seems foreboding even in the sunshine.
The most interesting are the characters, daring in their portraiture. The residents of Dogville, except for Tom, appear a little menacing right from the beginning, while Grace is a helpless do-gooder. They are guarded and cautious, and more polite than friendly; Grace appears to want to desperately uphold her moral values. As the film progresses, one watches with extreme discomfort as Grace goes from being a cherished outsider to being abused, raped and humiliated; as the residents’ feelings change from watchful mercy to sadistic dominance. At the very end, Grace is the one wielding the power, yet still tries to cling to her values – but when she remembers her ordeal and sees the villagers in all their shallow pretentiousness, she decides to let go. The law-abiding citizens of Dogville pay a heavy price for exploiting Grace in return for harbouring her; and the wealthy and once-mild-mannered young woman refuses to forgive them despite their poverty and has them butchered.
In the end, they’re all the same - individuals who, when cornered by the wrongdoing of others, are incapable of reaching the standards they set for themselves.