Von Trier’s America may be too cartoonish for its own good
When Dogville premiered last year at Cannes to livid accusations of anti-Americanism, the most daring aspect of director Lars von Trier‘s masterpiece somehow escaped notice. Caught up in controversy over the film’s derogatory take on American society, reviewers spent much of their time writing about the inflammatory credits sequence, in which photographers of destitute Dust Bowlers were sardonically juxtaposed with David Bowie’s upbeat “Young Americans,” and so doing they missed the film’s most ambitious element: its production design.
Filmed entirely on a football field-sized sound stage, with minimal lighting and props, the opening shot reveals the town of Dogville as it appears from above — or rather, how it would appear, if it physically existed. Rather than walls, the houses and shops of Dogville’s dozen or so inhabitants are demarcated by white painted lines, so that the entire town resembles a blueprint or a board game. Instead of gooseberry bushes or the town store, the viewer must make do with the blatant artifice of a two-dimensional line painted directly onto the stage. Where there is an actual prop, it is labeled nearby: beside a seat on the edge of the stage, “OLD LADIES’ BENCH” is stenciled.
The drama of small town life is mimed from start to finish: characters knock on unseen doors, and hide behind invisible walls. As in a low-budget play, the narrator, John Hurt, is forced to use voice-over to describe the squalor of the town’s houses — houses so squalid, in fact, that they lack even physical reality. Even the mascot of the town, a dog named Moses, is a mere line drawing, a brazenly generic symbol for the town’s lupine heart.
It is not just the performances and dialogue but the staging itself that conveys von Trier’s harsh moral sensibility. As morally myopic as the town’s residents are, the God-like viewer can see — and judge — them perfectly. We watch in outrage and disbelief as a resident rapes lead actress Nicole Kidman in plain sight of the entire town. In that sense, few of the town’s residents can see the obvious any better than Dogville’s literally blind resident Mr. McKay, who thinks he can keep his handicap secret by constantly describing the progress of the shadow cast by a church spire outside his window.
This stage design, with its unapologetically clunky symbolism, encapsulates the best and worst of the film. It cleverly underscores the town’s lack of moral vision, but also that of the director’s. Critics point out that the Danish von Trier has never seen firsthand the country he would critique. The film jokes about this: the self-styled writer of the town wants to write a novel about Dogville but doesn’t like the name, because it isn’t universal enough. As self-deprecating as this gesture seems, one can only wonder if von Trier felt that his own European vision was quite the opposite: too universal to be burdened with the inconvenience of a real American landscape.
The tension between the universal and specific as regards production design is implicit in the manifesto of Dogme 95, the directors’ collective von Trier co-founded. For the sake of honesty, “The Vow of Chastity” forbids importing props from off-location, and the use of “temporal and geographical alienation.” Von Trier compromised, seeking to reconcile the honesty of verité with the possibilities of an otherworldly, moral fable. The trouble is that he tried too hard to find truth in the universal, which, paradoxically, is completely bereft of it.
The approach is especially ill suited to chronicling American life, whose plastic clutter makes easy narrative impossible. We like to stage Shakespeare, the most “universal” of playwrights, in the park. In contrast, so many celebrations of American life — Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for example — revel in detail precisely because it is the country’s physical, messy, pornographic excess that redeems its austere Puritanical heart. It is unfortunate that Americans have a hard time seeing their country from a foreigner’s remove, but as they say, the truth lies somewhere in between.
By removing the physical substance of the American landscape, von Trier shows himself to be an enterprising director and a lazy anthropologist. In the end, he only shuffles around the pieces of a board game of his invention. Next time, he might invite the audience to play along.