Like a hulking doorstop of a classic novel, Lars von Trier’s 2003 film Dogville is an endurance test, a summit to be climbed with great effort. And celebrating the 20th anniversary (along with a 4K restoration now playing on streaming service Mubi), the film is now enjoying its earned reputation as a difficult, but rewarding classic. At the time of its Cannes Film Festival debut, the film was interpreted as a direct comment on America’s war on terror. But now as it finds a new or revisiting audience, Dogville might have more to say today about the soul of America than it did 20 years ago.
Partly inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” and the work of John Steinbeck, the film is set during the Great Depression in a tiny fictional hamlet in the Rocky Mountains, with narrator John Hurt purring out a hammer of omnipotent judgment. Much like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the proceedings are presented on a near-bare, setless soundstage, with chalk lines drawn to distinguish between buildings, pathways, and the surrounding mountains. Encased by towering soundstage curtains, nothing beyond the town is visible, while everything inside it is in full view at all times.
Nicole Kidman’s Grace descends upon the town to the sound of gunfire in the distance, escaping what we will learn is her crime boss father (James Caan). With the bestowed kindness of spiritual mayor Tom (Paul Bettany), Grace seeks sanctuary, but must first win over the townsfolk’s favor. Pervasive throughout the makeshift neighborhood is a paranoia over forfeiting one’s limited means, especially to an outsider. This American Everytown is named purposefully: its most emblematic citizen is its sole canine Moses, barking aggressively at the sign of a stranger and turning vicious when asked to share what’s his.
Grace slowly wins everyone’s reluctant acceptance, but when the safe harbor they offer her becomes riskier, Dogville turns on her again. Systematically, Grace is dehumanized and demoralized, with the town exposing the depths of their isolationist mindset and their willingness to exploit her circumstance. Later given the power over Dogville’s fate, Grace chooses retaliation, even if it means embracing the violent upbringing she was trying to escape.
The film held the potential to be a triumphant victory lap for both its star and creator. For von Trier, it was a return to Cannes after his Palme d’Or win for Dancer in the Dark. The film was also something of the end of an era, a full rejection of the Dogme 95 filmmaking style he helped create (the rules of which rejected production elements such as artificial sound or lighting design) and began to stray from with Dancer. Though seemingly naturalistic and unvarnished, Dogville was an embrace of high artifice.
For Kidman, Dogville was the actress in mid-ascent. Dogville wrapped filming a few weeks before she would win her Oscar for The Hours, and was her first film to premiere after that career triumph. The next few years would mark a period of her career balancing large-scale entertainment and director-driven fare, all of which would be greeted with some degree of disappointment, from the studio bomb remake of The Stepford Wives to the controversial and misunderstood Birth.
This was a convening of two cinema dynamos whose futures and standing would become immediately complicated by the powderkeg film. With all eyes on their film, then came an insurmountable Everest of scrutiny, simply too much pressure for a delicately conceived (if gargantuan) project.
The immediate critical response at Cannes was polarized between deeming it a masterpiece or misfire, with American critics offering the most befuddled, outraged reactions. Roger Ebert called it “one of the most confounding and exasperating films of the festival.” Variety’s Todd McCarthy classified the film as von Trier being over-sensitive to similar criticisms for the America-set Dancer: “If the director wants more outraged reactions from Americans about his ignorance of their country, he’ll certainly be able to fill many clippings books with them this time out.”
In the divided response, Dogville was quickly branded as “anti-American.” One of the targets for ire was the film’s end credits, with von Trier setting decades-spanning photographs of American poverty to David Bowie’s decadent “Young Americans” (“vulgar,” said McCarthy), itself a European’s impression of American life. It’s an undeniably grotesque and hostile narrative gesture, and one that makes von Trier’s claim that Dogville could be about any place other than America read as trolling.
Cannes was already a tense environment for discussion of American politics. Along with the French government, Cannes had disavowed the war on terror, stirring some speculation that the American film industry might boycott—which ended up being unfounded, since none of this stopped famously right-leaning Clint Eastwood from bringing his Mystic River to the competition. However, it did place more attention on Meg Ryan and Steven Soderbergh, the American members of the competition jury. When speculation that Dogville was heavily favored to win a big prize proved false, it was considered a pointed, perhaps political slight. (Gus van Sant’s Columbine-inspired Elephant would end up winning the Palme and Best Director.)
Though the timing of its debut certainly stoked von Trier’s hunger for provocation, it stands to reason that Dogville arrived at a time when it wouldn’t be fully appreciated for what it was. The film debuted in a post-9/11 world where questioning American political ills was met with widespread hostility, before it would be comfortable to question the right-leaning with-us-or-against-us mentality of the moment.
Would it have received a fairer shake even one year later? Two months prior to Cannes, at the same Oscar ceremony Kidman won her Oscar, Michael Moore chastised President Bush on-stage while the crowds’ boos overpowered the approving cheers and on-camera frozen shock of Hollywood’s finest. One year later, Moore’s anti-Bush manifesto Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme and grossed over $100M domestically.
But by the time Dogville reached its American release in 2004, it felt less like a political hot potato, and more like pretentious old news. “A year later, with the war depressing old news,” Manohla Dargis said, “it’s hard to see what the fuss was about.” Ebert placed it on his worst of the year list, shrugging off the anti-American stain and stating “if you ask me, it’s anti-audience.”
Nevertheless, the “anti-American” brandishment for Dogville comes off as reductive today, the byproduct of a moment when questioning the country’s motives were culturally verboten, especially on such a large global stage as Cannes. While the war on terror could have served some inspiration to von Trier, watching Dogville today–removed from that specter of context–von Trier’s more timeless themes come to focus.
In the years since, Dogville has gained a standing as one of the most singular films of this century. With enough on its mind to stand alone as a singular cinematic, political statement, the dent of a failed trilogy has faded—though von Trier remains a complex, understandably troublesome figure for some. Because of both the shock of its formal audacity and the immediate political context in which it was received, Dogville’s forest got lost for its flashiest trees. Watching Dogville today, “anti-American” comes off as overly simplistic, a reactionary term that makes the film’s motivations appear less complex or considered.
What the film’s new 4K restoration helps reassert anew is that a “filmed play” it is not—von Trier’s camera allows us to see both the macro and micro of everyday cruelty, rendering the psychological and physical violence of Dogville in intimate detail. What is artificial in the staging is meant to underscore the false tenets at the center of the American psyche. This disturbing dissonance is reflected in those Bowie-set closing credits, setting images of American suffering and the ironically effervescent song about the unfulfilling reality of American promise.
Initially, Grace is a believer in the myth, buying into the lie that a town like Dogville has been used to sell. “All I see is a beautiful town in the midst of mountains,” she says, “A place where people have hopes and dreams, even under the hardest of conditions.” Once subjected to repeated rapes and physical torment, she discovers that it is not their dreams that motivate them, but their self-preservational contempt. The town abuses her, and expects gratitude. Grace eventually confronts the township about their abuse, all of which they had participated in either as perpetrator or witness–and they all flatly reject her testimony as a lie. Fake news and hypocrisy abounds even in places as cut off as Dogville.
Von Trier allows for some thorniness to prevent Dogville from preachiness: it is up to the viewer to decide whether Grace’s act of revenge is a perpetuation of a cycle of American violence or a warning that there is no redemption when an isolationist mindset leads to inhumanity. What remains clearest in von Trier’s outsider estimation of America–especially as the nation is overwhelmed by hateful attacks on immigrants, trans people, and any truth that proves inconvenient to far-right ideology–is that cruelty is one of its defining characteristics, especially if it is in the name of “America First.”
Twenty years on, Dogville still harnesses the power to unmask the hatred behind America’s belief in its own goodness. In Dogville, von Trier gives the cold-hearted, uncompassionate American no place to hide.