Thursday, June 28, 2007

I find it quite amusing that so many Americans were outraged that Lars von Trier had the temerity to criticise their country without having visited it. After all, we do it all the time, don't we? Millions of us are quite content to sit on our sofas and criticise China, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Israel and countless other countries without having visited their shores. And we're perfectly justified in doing so. So why should von Trier be vilified for criticising America from a few thousand miles away? Well, of course, I don't think he should. He's perfectly entitled to his opinion, and those that cry and moan are symptomatic of America's biggest problem – its inability to take criticism without getting its pants in a twist. Surely every great country should thrive on criticism. It should help it grow and develop. But instead America seems to resemble a child sometimes, spouting unhelpful phrases like, "America: love it or leave it" or, "You're either with us or against us." Therefore a film like Dogville, one that refuses to revel in the hollow American Dream, is vital, and it's a film that should be embraced, not shunned.

But anyway, what the detractors seem to overlook is the fact that Dogville could really be a small town anywhere. It may be the first part in an American trilogy, but the small town values with their prejudices and hypocrisy are universal; they're not exclusive to any one country. Everyone can relate...

The film begins and ends with a God's eye view of the proceedings and it isn't hard to imagine that von Trier is looking down on the characters, judging them. In fact, as Tom (Paul Bettany) himself says, everything is a game, a test, and von Trier is the one pulling the strings.

The game begins when Grace enters the town. The townsfolk are frightened, but Tom thinks it's a gift. He wants to see if Dogville has a problem with acceptance. Well, at the beginning, the citizens are understandably cautious, but they're eventually placated when Grace proves that she can help them out. And so at the beginning she develops a good relationship with the town and its citizens. But even at the beginning the relationship is far from equal. She may like everyone, but she's essential a slave. Yet the townsfolk like her best like this, when she's happily subservient.

As the film progresses, the town is tested further. The police post wanted posters and accuse Grace of crimes that she couldn't have committed (as she was in the town at the time of the reported incidents). But rather than this bring everyone together, the town gets cold feet. It wants to help, but only as long as it doesn't put them at risk. Therefore they decide to doubly enslave Grace to make themselves feel better. It's an extraordinary move, but one that is anything but far-fetched. Individuals are brave, but people have worrying habit of proving themselves to be spineless.

And seeing as Grace affects the status quo, the townsfolk decide to take their frustrations out on her. The men rape her physically and the women rape her psychologically. In fact, the most upsetting scene isn't one of the numerous rape scenes – although Chuck's rape scene does prove the brilliance of the set, what with it showing everyone going about their daily business and turning a blind eye to what is going on - it is instead the womens' abuse of Grace and the destruction of her figurines. It's more than just a physical violation. It's a violation of everything. Her dreams are being smashed right before her eyes.

But why do the people of Dogville react this way? Surely their behaviour is an exaggeration. Well, it is and it isn't. Of course the film paints a bleak portrait of human nature that you might not find down your street, but I think that the film proves that we all have darkness present in us. It only takes the right conditions and the right buttons to be pressed for it to emerge. In the case of Dogville, it emerges for many reasons, but I think the main reason is because Grace shows everyone what they are. Before her arrival everyone is happily stuck in a rut, but once she arrives everything changes. Everyone is faced with their mediocrity and everyone's lies are exposed. In one scene, McKay (Ben Gazzara), after having finally admitted his blindness, indeed thanks Grace for "showing us who you are", but during her time in Dogville she also forces Bill to realise his stupidity (by playing checkers for him), Liz her unattractiveness (by catching Tom's eye), Ben his loneliness (by providing for him), Chuck and Vera their unhappy marriage (by catching Chuck's eye) and Tom his cowardice (through his refusal to kiss her even though she's admitted her love for him). Needless to say, not everyone likes being exposed. It's hard to face yourself when you don't like what you see. And therefore the person that you're going to punish is the one that made you look at your reflection…

The ending is certainly bleak, but I think it forces us to take a hard look at ourselves. How often have we taken advantage of other people when we should have helped? How often have our intentions been selfish? And Grace's final actions suggest one thing to me: if you treat someone like an animal, you shouldn't be surprised when they treat you like one too.

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