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October 04, 2003


I was mercifully ignorant of the existence of Dogville until I came across an Ananova news article this week. Nicole Kidman reportedly walked out of a screening of her new film as she found it too disturbing to watch. Sensitive Flea-readers take note: what follows is an ugly story. This post merits a severe blood-pressure warning. Please note I have not seen the film and am relying on published descriptions.

Dogville tells the story of a woman, played by Kidman, on the run from gangsters somewhere in a surreal 1930s America. She is taken in by villagers - there being so many "villagers" in the United States - who are initially sympathetic to her. When she is raped by a village man her story is not believed and her sanctuary becomes a prison where she is beaten by village women by day as the village men take their turns with her by night. So far, so revolting. Some believe the ugliness of the story is redeemed by the film's aesthetic qualities.

"Dogville" might be called an experiment because of its truly unconventional filming style. As has been reported from Cannes, the film is essentially a filmed play, with a bare stage complete with chalk outlines indicating locations like "Elm Street" and "Ben's House" among a few doorframes (no walls or ceilings) and tiny props (a telephone, ceramic figurines). Each of the small town's fifteen or so residents can constantly be seen in the background even when the audience is "in" someone else's house, and true to its dinner theater aesthetic, we hear the squeak and slam of doors as characters pantomime "entering" and "exiting" each others' homes.

This is an art-house film and in the convention of the genre includes an inevitable underlying metaphor illustrated through its minimalist staging. Any guesses what Von Trier intends to convey through this story of gang-rape? Anyone? Bueller?

Von Trier's moral is, of course, that America is evil. Connecting the dots from a film by a European director, filmed in Sweden, starring an Australian and featuring "villagers" might not seem an easy task. It goes like this. Kidman's character is an "immigrant" and the United States treats immigrants badly! Ta da! In case Von Trier's insight is lost in the brutal imagery of Kidman kept in an iron collar and chained to a wheel he thoughtfully includes photos of poverty in the United States over the closing credits. This is just after the villagers are all massacred in divine retribution for all the bad things they have done. You know, implies Von Trier, just like America deserved 9/11. Far be it from me to point out the illogic of presenting a nation of immigrants - including countless millions who fled Europe and its pogroms and gang-rapes right through the 1990s - in this light. Still less would I pause to reflect that Kidman's immigrant experience of America is poorly represented in this role. The film is a "metaphor" you see. Not an actual United States but the United States of Von Trier's imagination.

It turns out Lars Von Trier has never set foot in the United States.

"I feel like an American, actually. I'm kind of, 'Ich bin ein American,'" said von Trier, paraphrasing President Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner)" declaration on a 1963 trip to West Berlin. "I would love to start a 'free America' campaign. Because we just had a 'free Iraq' campaign," von Trier said. "I'm sure it's a beautiful country. I would love to go there. But I'm afraid to go there. I don't think I can go to America right now because I don't think it's how it should be."

Von Trier's craven rhetoric has it both ways. On the one hand his film is meant to be an incisive condemnation of American society. On the other, his film is only a metaphor for an imaginary America so not to worry. It is a metaphor alright. "A metaphor with a map," as one viewer aptly put it. The metaphor speaks to Von Trier's character and not to the history of the United States.

Take Von Trier's representation of gang-rape, for example. Humiliation of women is a recurring "theme" in his films.

"I don't think it's that exciting when it's men who are tortured," Von Trier said to a few jeers yesterday, "but that's a personal thing. I can only repeat that it's not that important. I think it's kind of a superficial way of looking at the films."

Superficial, indeed. Brutalization of women in art-house work for the literati flies over the heads of simple folk who might mistake Von Trier's sophistication for him being of cynical, misogynistic scum-bag. This is a man who takes enjoyment in filming the rape and torture of women. This is a man who has never set foot in the United States and whose work blames the pogrom of September 11, 2001 on those who were massacred. And this is the model of the modern European intellectual who dares raise himself up as an a guardian of virtue. I have two words for Lars Von Trier and his followers but my publishing policy means I will not say them here.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at October 4, 2003 10:31 AM


That's truly disturbing, but altogether typical of the Euroweenie art-house mentality right now. The fact that the man's never been to the United States would be hilarious if he wasn't pushing such a worthless and dehumanizing agenda.

Posted by: Chris Taylor at October 4, 2003 02:37 PM

Thanks for the well-deserved "Fisk Award" review. Another for my don't-see list.

Posted by: A;ene Berk at October 4, 2003 07:29 PM

Thanks for tracking this down, I don't think I would have read about this disturbing bit of filth otherwise...

Posted by: Paul Jané at October 5, 2003 05:51 PM

The really annoying thing is that there are, if fact, things wrong with the States. But if people insist of using the US as an imaginary locus of all that is wrong with humanity, then actual real problems never get dealt with.

Why do people feel this need to pin all manner of evil on some unsuspecting "other", anyway?

Posted by: angua at October 5, 2003 11:45 PM

Angua, I could not agree more. This is a point analogous to the distinction you often make regarding Israel. It should be possible to disagree with specific aspects of Israeli foreign or domestic policy but the moonbats negate all conversation or debate with the extremity of their views. The same is true of Tony Blair's government. I have voted for "New" Labour MPs twice because any disagreements I have with his European policy are over-shadowed by a sense the man is the only British leader on offer capable of making moral distinctions critical to the world of the last two years.

The irony underlying Von Trier's hate-propaganda is that the United States is the most exuberantly self-critical place the world has ever seen. Michael Moore and Edward Said alike would not have had careers had they tried out their rhetoric in Von Trier's Denmark. Throw a dart at the map and chances are good it will land on a country which imprisons its domestic Moores, Saids and Von Triers.

Does this mean we should never criticize United States foreign or domestic policy? Of course not. In fact, I think Canadians should emulate the American passion for thorough-going self-criticism. Until we stop pointing fingers south of the border for everything that is imperfect in an imperfect world our Canadian elites will carry on monopolizing our politics, arts and government. I believe the function of Von Trier's hate-propaganda is the same as its equivalents from tyrannies of the past: a big distraction from the inequalities and injustices of the society which produced it. It seems to me "Dogville" is the product of a totalitarian imagination and no reflection on the United States.

Posted by: Nicholas Packwood at October 6, 2003 08:45 AM

Denmark is not all Lars von Trier, although most university-intellectuals in Denmark love antu-western, anti-american propaganda.

Personally I think he is a not-worth-mentioning-looser, who just cry like the other wolves.

His mowie 'The Idiot' (Idioten in danish) were self-biographical.

Keep up the good work.


Kim Møller, proud dane

Posted by: Kim Møller at October 6, 2003 10:01 AM

If an American crafted a film in which a refugee to a Danish village, or a Saudi village, or a Candian village, or a [fill in the name of a country other than the US] village, were gang-raped and imprisoned, with the villagers eventually killed in a massive dose of divine retribution, the literati would be outraged at American xenophobia, insularlism, jingoism, anti-immigration rhetoric, cowboy-style movie-making, coopting of God for natinoalistic politics, and other such nastiness.

But since it's an American village ... well, shucks, it's just art. And deep, insightful, metaphorical art, at that, which says something ineffably profound. Right?

Posted by: *** Dave at October 6, 2003 12:29 PM

I agree with angua that many people use the US as a "Locus of all that is wrong with humanity" and think that Lars' ending credits for Dogville was kind of a cheap shot. But up until that point I didn't feel particularly attacked. Yes, it was a town in America and why not? What other place in the world do people have wet dreams about living in and loath at the same time? The events in the film to me were much larger than the fact that it happened in America. And the fact being that America is such a powerful force in the world, shouldn't we be thick skinned enough to accept that the HUMAN conditions portrayed in this movie may exist here? Yes, I think the credits were a cheap shot, but I feel that the movie in general was very insightful and one of the more intelligent things I have seen on the screen recently.

Posted by: tel at April 10, 2004 09:05 PM

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