28 September 2014
Set in a small Colorado town during the Great Depression, Lars von Trier’s 2003 film, Dogville, tells of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious and potentially dangerous stranger who happens into Dogville (the town) seeking refuge from gangsters hot on her trail. The citizens of the town agree to hide Grace for a trial period, and, in thanks, she tries helping out the citizens with chores: cleaning, visiting, gardening, etc. As time goes on, the people of Dogville welcome Grace, but when the gangsters reappear searching for her once more, conflict mounts. The citizens begin abusing Grace; feeling entitled to treat her like their slave because they are hiding her from danger. The men rape her, the women torture her, and even the children take a hand at tormenting the mystery woman. Even her closet friend, Tom (Paul Bettany), becomes abusive. When Grace tries to escape the town, she is literally shackled with an iron collar and chain, preventing her from fleeing. Eventually, when conflict peaks, Tom calls the gangsters, willing to give Grace over to danger for reward money. What the citizens of Dogville do not realize is Grace’s father is one of gangsters; he is not looking to harm her; Grace’s father wants to reunite. After speaking privately with her father, and gaining a new perspective on the evils of Dogville and its citizens, Grace orders the gangsters to kill the people and burn the town.
From one perspective, Dogville is a film about sight, filled with references to blindness, misperception, and concealment. First, there is a blind character who absolutely denies he is blind, that is until Grace tricks him into revealing his “condition.” Also, there are several references to what the people of Dogville think they “see,” such as when a character “sees” Grace and Chuck having sex. This was misperceived because Chuck raped Grace. Then there is what overtly hides from sight in Dogville. Grace hides from the mobsters in the film; she is in Dogville so she will not be seen.
So, what is it all for? In one of the most visual mediums of storytelling, what is the film saying about sight by highlighting blindness, misperception, and concealment? Well, one possible reading is that the film is, ironically, warning about the dangers of turning a blind eye, misperceiving situations, and concealing by creating a “blinding” experience for viewers. In Dogville, von Trier conceals something in plain sight, something the audience spends the entire film misperceiving until the film’s conclusion. That something (or, more pointedly, someone) is Grace.
Jumping straight to the final hour of the film, the citizens of Dogville rape, abuse, and torture Grace. As a result, the audience feels anger and sadness for her; viewers see Grace as the victim of the darkest side to human nature. And, in the end, through an epiphany realized by the way the moon’s light shines on Dogville’s flaws, Grace decides to burn Dogville and kill all its residents. As a result, what does the audience see happen? Justice for the wrong done to Grace?
The reaction the audience wants in the conclusion is justice. Grace was victimized and her abusers must face a consequence for their heinous actions. But, are they served a conscionable consequence?
When Vera breaks all of Grace’s figurines and tells her, if Grace does not cry after the first, Vera will not break another, knowing that Grace will not be able to control her tears, Vera is torturing Grace. Yet, when Vera receives her consequence—having her children shot in front of her and being told, if she does not cry, the next may be saved, knowing a mother will react to her child’s brutal murder—this consequence is unacceptable.
The audience does not see justice at the end of Dogville. Why? Because, by the end of the film which has consistently drawn viewers’ attention to sight, both literally and metaphorically, Dogville allows viewers to see Grace for the first time, and she is not the character viewers thought her to be.
Metaphorically, the blind man represents viewers. He pretends to see, but he does not. Viewers pretend to see Grace, willingly forgetting that, from the moment they first meet her, Grace is in hiding; her existence is about concealment, making it impossible to truly see the mystery woman. The audience does not actually see Grace until she is found by the gangsters in the film’s conclusion, and the Grace viewers finally see is not the heroine once hoped for; not to lessen the severity of the citizens’ behaviors, but Grace is as calculating and, perhaps, more shrewd than any of Dogville’s citizens.
The final shot of the movie is of Moses, the town dog. Up until this shot, Moses was represented via audible barking; no animal was ever filmed. But, supporting a reading that the film’s conclusion reveals sight, as viewers are able to Grace for who she really is in the film’s climax, von Trier also allows viewers to see Moses. Like Grace, Moses was with viewers all the film; he was a character who emerged at the exact time as Grace; yet, it is not until viewers finish the film’s journey and realize their own blindness can they see Moses.
On some level, Dogville is a statement that people wear blinders, perhaps by choice, and not being careful about what one sees can be dangerous. It was dangerous for the citizens of Dogvillle. And it is alarming to viewers who realize, at the very last moment, their film’s heroine is actually another villain.