I first saw this stinker in 2004 in Bristol. I remember that my initial impression was one of utter revulsion and I said so, much to the horror of friends who thought the movie brave, unique, intriguing, brilliant and so on. Being a foreigner and an outsider, I tried to save face by explaining away my dislike of the film as intelligently as possible, while knowing that it’s often difficult (and counter-productive) to let visceral response enter the cool web of language. So I tried to argue that the film, typical of so many of Von Trier’s efforts (I’d seen two but read about more), was emotionally manipulative, unrealistic yet (in terms of style) avowedly Brechtian, ethically repulsive because of its bleak vision, whether ‘depressingly predictable’ or ‘courageously unflinching’, literally turned on a dime, a gamble, an empty bet.
But, as I failed to realize then, such argument (which beached itself on the surprised, subjective shores of ‘well, I liked it anyway’) was unnecessary. I should merely have said that the film left me with too visceral a response. There was little or no emotional confusion. I didn’t pity any of the characters enough to wish them redeemed. Instead, I was left to puzzle through a (largely sterile) philosophical problem to which I (and, I should hope, most people) should respond with an assertive, ‘No. Murder is not a feasible solution.’
Anyone else leave the theatre in two minds over whether or not the nasty, exploitative, irredeemable villagers got their comeuppance? Well, I did, and that’s precisely why I felt sick. That response, which is to my mind a justification of murder, is nauseating whichever way one cuts it. A good starting point for discussion, yes, but Von Trier smugly leaves one to wrestle with this ostensible ‘dilemma’ instead of suggesting a solution, and that, for me, is where the film failed. I mean to say that I wondered, as I still do, if the question of ‘murder’ is in and of itself not limited, uninteresting, naïve? The fact for me is that it shouldn’t take much to arrive at an answer to whether murder is justified or not, and yet, this is the sheep in wolves’ clothing that Von Trier demands we regard with dread. But a sheep dressed up as a wolf is far too camp to be dreadful, so maybe it’s deeper than that: Capitalist allegory? Exploitation remains at the heart of human existence and needs to be erased. Fine – but who decides this in the film? The cream of the crop or, as Von Trier leads us to believe, the scum at the top. Daddy’s little rich girl comes to town on a bet with big Poppa, loses, kills everyone. I suppose that one might argue that this isn’t good capitalist practice (the exploitative townies should really have been taken into bondage), but pop will eat itself, as the saying goes.
And the same idea is done, more vacuously and with surprising honesty, in the popular arena. Item: Paris Hilton and ‘The Simple Life’ where rich-bitch Paris flouts all attempts at proletarian exploitation of her body as capital and leaves the poor yokels to consider the waste of their lives. These poor peons are left to contemplate a slow, unglamorous death, while Paris’ cathode-reified image pouts at our suburban splendour through the tube. The ratings rise. With whom do we sympathise? With whom do we relate? Perversely, one feels, these bluecoats in their shame, jealousy, regret, and hatred of Paris should probably thank her for setting them on the path to at least some awareness of commercial injustices perpetuated by the specular world of late capital. Who sees death by cathode-ray in the living room?
But I digress. My real gripe with ‘Dogville’, now, is with the response of a friend who, at a dinner party recently, thought the film ‘different’ and ‘interesting’ and shook her head when I said that I never thought that much of it. I didn’t bother risking a long, drawn out argument, but I thought about it later and I found that my reasons had changed. I don’t like ‘Dogville’, now, quite apart from the problems sketched out, in brief, above. I find it simply galling that it is exactly what said friend thought it was: ‘different’, ‘interesting’. But only, I would now venture to suggest, stylistically so.
Stylistically it is different and interesting in terms of look. Nothing else looks like it. And it flaunted thus across the ‘Art’ circuits, capital ‘A’, of the Western world. In this way, it was like a great, rubberized Godzilla stomping through the little Tokyo of popular perception. But its fire, I now feel, is the fire of those sparklers one finds at children’s parties, and the damages that it incurs on the psyche are like the damages incurred on a miniature set made to look like a big city. And how many simulated mock-ups of little Tokyo need to be encountered before someone realises that the real Tokyo is still out there, somewhere, and that it can never, ever be destroyed by a man dressed up in the costume of a rubber dinosaur?
(thanks to Simon van Schalkwyk for granting permission to post this)