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Dogville 2003 – An unsettling Lars Von Trier masterpiece


I remember the first time I decided to watch Lars Von Trier’s movie Dogville back in 2009. I’d bought 1 kg of Swedish candy (it’s the best btw), got the DVD and was ready for an epic movie night. Then I turned it on and was so utterly disappointed by the first scene, which showed a soundstage with pretend houses and streets drawn with white charcoal. I fast forwarded a bit to see if they would set the rest of the film on the same stage – and to my disappointment it was, and so I turned off the movie.

So, I didn’t even give this movie a chance the first time around. Then came a day years later, left with nothing else to watch I found the dusty DVD on my shelf and thought, what the hell – I have nothing better to do, and turned it on. Wow, turning off this movie years earlier might have been the worst cinematic mistake of my life, but deciding to give it a second chance was definitely the best one to this day! This movie is a masterpiece, in my opinion. My favourite of Lars Von Trier, and perhaps even my favourite movie of all time.

A morally unsettling story

Grace Dogville movie

Dogville centers around Grace (Nicole Kidman) who is on the run and ends up in a town called Dogville, a small village in the Rocky Mountains. Seeking refuge from a gangster mob she offers the help the town residents in exchange for allowing her to stay there. The villagers hesitantly agree, and at first wants nothing from her – or maybe rather nothing to do with her. But little by little the town folks come to expect her help, and as each chapter goes by they want it more and more, until they eventually even demand it. Grace’s support comes with a price, a price they force her to pay. But the question becomes, is it worth staying or should she surrender to the gangster-mob hunting her? Or is it already too late?

Dogville is a story about vengeance, but not the kind you’d think. The movie explores what leads one to be vengeful in the first place. It’s the perfect Von Trier movie, delving into the human psyche of what makes people commit awful acts. Exploring what makes someone turn from a seemingly good person to a seemingly evil person.

Not Trier’s typical Dogme 95 movie

Lars Von Trier filmed Dogville on an almost empty soundstage in Sweden. The film doesn’t follow rules of the “Dogme 95 Manifesto” that the director himself helped create years earlier. Among the 10 rules, or “The Vow of Chastity.” as he calls it, examples are “Shooting must be performed on location”, “Diegetic sound only” and “All shots must be handheld”. Intending to protest overproduced Hollywood movies, it must follow these rules to be an authentic Dogme movie. Dogville did not.

Lars Von Trier genius director

Let’s just say – even though years and years earlier a young Von Trier signed the Vow of Chastity Dogville was quite the opposite. Lars Von Trier completely broke the vow and instead created a Brechtian-styled movie (this style instead relies on you as the audience to reflect without emotional involvement). But even though Dogville is not a Dogme movie it doesn’t fail in protesting Hollywood, America, and basically any human being.

I was sceptical (to say the least) when I saw the world in which Dogville is set (not proud of it). But the soundstage is ultimately the perfect environment for this movie. It so simple yet so complex, offering a rare intimate view of what goes on behind every “closed door” as we watch the story unfold. It might be the most clever setting in movie history.

A director unlike any other

Lars Von Trier is one odd director and human being. His social awkwardness is almost unbearable to witness, yet his movies portray deep moral issues, delves into human psychology, and battles some of the world’s most controversial questions. The director’s social awkwardness has not gone unnoticed, causing him trouble and even resulting in him being banned from Cannes after making an awful nazi joke.

Nicole Kidman movie

But what caused the director to make such an inappropriate joke in the first place? I certainly don’t think he supports nazi’s or is in favour of the WWII. Von Trier has on numerous occasions explained that he sympathises with evil, that he understands it. And to sympathize does not mean agree with! From what we can see in most of his movies, the most innocent people often become the most vicious. This is certainly the case in Dogville.

With Dogville hitting cinemas around the world, Von Trier received harsh objections to making a movie set in America, since he had never stepped foot in the United States. Lars Von Trier simply argued back that the creators of Casablanca never stepped foot in Morocco. He also stated that this criticism only fueled him to make more movies set in America. And he did.

A mirror of humanity?

Dogville a morally unsettling movie

Dogville is such a dark, morally disturbing movie. It portrays how a group of people can make something awful a new “normal” and acceptable behaviour. It doesn’t cast humans in the nicest light, which I guess upsets many viewers causing some harsh criticism. Such is the deal with most controversial movies. If you are one of the people who didn’t like the movie, perhaps ask yourself why. Was there something in the movie you don’t like about yourself? Or were you just bored by the soundstage set?

I think Lars Von Trier’s view of humans is very nuanced. He sees something in people that most probably don’t. A view that sees both the good and evil in all of us, and the multiple aspects that affect the actions we take. With Dogville group pressure plays an enormous factor. If enough people do something, it must be ok, right?

Just as a psychologist often knows suffering, a criminologist often understands a serial killer, Lars Von Trier accepts that there is evil in him, in all of us, and so he uses this to make masterful morally difficult movies. Dogville is probably one of the best examples of this. To understand something is not necessarily to agree with it, but I think this is where many people misjudge the director, and also the movie.

Perhaps we’re all wolfs in sheep’s clothing.

Written By


I've always had a deep love and fascination for movies, being an especially strong advocate for the weird, foreign, underrated, under-budgeted and unfairly NC17 rated films of our world. Cinesister is the embodiment of this passion (which some might call an obsession).

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