Reflections on watching Von Trier’s Dogville
Neo-realism. Had it been shot in real (as humans perceive it) sets, it would have been particularized, localized. The director certainly wants his set, his Dogville to be deprived of any particularity or peculiarity that could make the viewer feel safe in the distancing. The bareness, lack of definite objects universalizes
the characters. We all become residents of Dogville. Our homes get painted on the canvas of representation.
Plato had once said that art is twice removed from reality, while what we see around us is once removed, it is a copy, a reflection, if the world of ideas. The director holds up a faithful mirror, that reflects the once removed reality not to the twice removed art but back to the platonic world of ideas. The question is, what do we see there. or may be, how do we see ourselves in there.
The Dogvillers: They participate as a unit, both in their noblest generosity and in their nauseating transgressions. The unit demands complete participation, all 15 votes, including Tom’s. So the viewer’s assumptions of security in considering Tom as capable of Individual action gets the first note of a breach when he is counted just as a vote.
Cinema is a mode of representation that is complemented by the Audience’s response. However, in Dogville, the movement of the plot and the flow of action preconceives the audience reaction and in doing so dismantles the very cornerstone of perception. Every viewer sees a movie from a certain stand point , using a point of reference. Von Trier dismantles this very notion ruthlessly. As the film begins, the audience is coaxed into believing that Tom is the point of reference. Post modernism has done away with the term hero or protagonist or even antihero. They are too loaded with expectations. I like to use the expression “Point of reference”. We are led to believe is Tom is that point of reference. He is not expected to be extraordinary or superhuman. But he is expected to be “different” from the others, separate from the unit. Grace, the woman, is seen from this reference point as an “outsider”.
So there is a pattern established.
General Unified Block ———– Reference point————–outside trigger.
This pattern places Grace as an influencing factor, an active generator of disturbance that is tried to be assimilated into the folds of the unit by the point of reference.
Or so are we made to believe.
Tom, who begins as the “voice” of justice, love and chivalry is exposed as wearing rusty armour. He had convinced her to shame the townsmen for their dirty dealing: As the whole of Dogville stands guard against Grace’s truthful revelations, Tom is seen to renounce his fellow townsmen and walk towards Grace’s house. He is seen to walk on the track marks prominently imprinted on snow by Grace’s wheel like contraption that is chained on to her. It is as if we are about to witness a divine reconciliation. His sexual advances sound romantic and convincing: “No more plans I promise” he says, “We free ourselves of Dogville.”
How could he free himself from something which was his rooted site! He couldn’t. He tries to silence Grace’s refusal(We were to meet in freedom) by reasoning with her that for his sacrifice he deserved recompense. He stands exposed, pitiably exposed as just one of the Dogvillers, in his claims of Grace’s body.
The point of reference is dismantled. The audience’s mind refocuses on the narrative to see Grace herself as the point of reference. The outsider becomes a Christ like figure, the sacrificial lamb, the perpetual victim.
Tom is an idealist. He is shown to retain faith in a design and in his desire to “illustrate” towards the end of the film he sees Grace as a story that he could write. Grace refuses to act following the codes imposed on her by Tom as the narrator of her story (“Nobody Gonna sleep here” she decides to transgress, make a choice of not acting as expected.) Interestingly Tom feels fascinated by the spectacle of violence presented to him by Grace’s men (“Your illustration beat the hell out of mine”)
And the Gangster’s cars arrive. It is Grace’s father. The tables had started to turn. She was no more the lamb on the cross. She becomes the avenger. It is Doomsday. It is as if she rides on a white horse. We expect justice, and justice is delivered.
However, the so far stark symbolic setting becomes detailed in showing the violence of the executioners. Grace no more remains a divine commander of justice. As she pulls the trigger on Tom she participates in the execution. Her stand is destabilized. The audience gropes helplessly in the dark, trying to hold on to yet another frame of reference, the mention of Georgetown, the place “outside” Dogville which would save Moses.
As the camera zooms on the chalked diagram of Moses he comes to life and the titles scroll up. Von Trier places his characters within tangible contexts and backgrounds, as the audience feels cathartic which implies that the audience can safely distance themselves from the narrative.
Dogville: Central Symbols
Von Trier challenges the limits of symbolism as well. The seven glass figurines may easily be associated with the seven dwarfs, which in turn makes Grace the Snowwhite. However, when she retaliates at the end to kill each one of Chuck’s children, she transforms from the frail lass to the Maenad. The apple orchard is the site of her violation. Her decision to escape by hiding along with the apple crates is ominous as attested by the consequences. The blind man hangs heavy curtains only to assure himself that he is not blind. The curtains represent the deliberate hiding of self from reality. Grace tries to bring in some light. She is offered only darkness of carnality by the lecherous men.
The film is a completely faithful representation of reality. Reality sans the decorative masks. It is as if action is filtered to deliver its essence. The lack of detailing is a deliberate choice to trim human actions of the unnecessary props. We are shown people are knocking at doors but there are no real doors. This is because the film is about the act of knocking and its repercussions. Likewise rape is shown in its nakedness, not in terms of any suggestive imagery. However during the act it is Chuck whose body is exposed since it is HIS vulnerability that is exposed. Grace remains an enigma till the final scene.
Finally she emerges as making a choice, not being acted upon but acting. Her stay at Dogville had begun when she tried to steal the dog’s bone. Her stay ends when the Dog is left with only human bones to guard. Her futile attempt to escape led the audience to believe that Dogville was the whole world, the entire representation of reality. Her final escape and mention of Georgetown places Dogville within a larger field. Moses would be rescued. Moses was always rescued. Only this time, he wont have a trail of followers.
Von Trier dismantles every expectation of pattern concerning philosophy, civilization, sexuality, love and free choice. Even Grace’s final act becomes both an assertion and negation of her freedom. That is all reality is about, a constant tendency to interpret negation as assertion, bindings as freedom. “How free we seem, how fettered fast we are” in the “mind forged manacles”. It is an echo of Orwell’s words: “Freedom is slavery”.
Von Trier takes every myth and breaks it not to define its futility but to expose our false faiths in these myths. The all forgiving lamb becomes the tiger of vengeance, but is at the very instant shown to be acting out of necessity. Even she becomes a Dogviller , she too needs something in return. She needs vengeance. She is offered power which chains her to a path of predictable expectations. She was rather more free wearing the weird contraption. She had the freedom to forgive.
Von Trier leaves us with uncertainty and mixed emotions. And he drops down a question on our plates. Why did we try so vehemently to distance ourselves from Dogvillers? Can we escape identification with our own selves? Grace said she could understand that within these limited circumstances all would act the same way including her. Wouldn’t we all? Don’t we all? Von Trier puts up a mirror. It is time we stop running away from reality.
Author: monami mukherjee
Poet, Blogger, Undergrad Professor. Literature and film enthusiast. Excited about both critical and creative writing.