For his 2003 film, Dogville, Danish director Lars von Trier tried something new. A filmmaker with a history of vile male characters, von Trier decided to give his next one a conscience. That man is Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), and the film is an indictment of American classism, presenting a town that’s kindness towards a stranger is predicated on exploitation. The film famously takes after Bertolt Brecht’s theater, with a lack of physical sets, chalk markings on the ground denoting typical props like “gooseberry bushes,” “house,” and “dog.” Actors mime opening doors and snow falls from nonexistent clouds, but after a certain point it’s hardly noticeable. That’s the beauty of the minimalist design, the way it vanishes to present the naked truth of performance. Tom, however, does not blend into the background. He is the linchpin that makes Dogville an infuriating narrative, and a masterful parable on human nature.
The other residents of the titular township are eccentric and archetypal: there’s Vera, mother of four and wife to Chuck, a farmer; there’s Ben the mechanic (Zeljko Ivanek); Ma Ginger the store owner (Lauren Bacall), and; Tom Edison, the self-aware philosopher who sucks at his job. Dogville only has about twenty residents, and most of them have functions designed to support the town. When Chuck picks apples, others benefit. When he doesn’t, they go hungry; but what do Tom’s gifts bring to the town? His knack for theory and writing takes shape in weekly town hall lectures, but a philosopher must aim for more than occasional moral tales if they wish to see their ideas take hold. He needs an illustration. In his quest to help Dogville see outside itself, he offers sanctuary to a stranger on the run from her father, a gangster, confident Dogville will provide her refuge. His vote of confidence isn’t enough to convince the town however, so Tom suggests a two-week trial period, at the end of which all will determine whether the stranger, Grace (Nicole Kidman), can remain in Dogville. A victim in need is the perfect opportunity for Tom, and he doesn’t miss his chance to utilize Grace as an illustration. Consequently, he fails to see her as a human in need, blinded by desire to connect theory and reality, and thus establish himself as a serious philosophical voice. For Tom, the correct choice is the one that best helps him achieve greatness, even though on the surface it appears to be the morally correct choice.
His first idea to win the town to Grace’s side is for her to offer manual labour. It makes sense when Tom proposes it: Dogville has given you something, now you give it something back. Grace says that this sounds like a game, when really, it’s her life at stake, to which Tom replies, “Isn’t saving your life worth a little game?”
Of course, Dogville has only “given” Grace the bare minimum, allowing her to stay and not be returned to the gangsters who will presumably kill her, but Tom is already detached from Grace as a person, so his cold reading of her concern is no surprise. She begins to work for the town, and finds there isn’t much that needs to be done. The people are fairly kind, accommodating her needs, and honest if not entirely polite. But that changes as the town realizes the labour benefits of Grace’s vulnerable position, and before long, her days are filled with work; she even receives a paycheck. Tom’s illustration is working, as the townspeople grow accustomed to Grace and reward her, but even now, before their treatment becomes truly vile, the citizens aren’t offering from their hearts, but from a desire to exploit. As is made abundantly clear, there is no need for Grace’s labour, so why shouldn’t she be welcomed in? Like most capitalists, Dogvillians believe labour to be the true test of character, that is, when it’s not being used to increase their own capital. Grace cannot reason with them, as she is a refugee. The labour she performs is meant to cement her citizenship, but all it does is create a loop of broken promises and increased labour, benefiting the town while demoralizing Grace.
Dogville needs a voice of reason. Tom’s father, Thomas Edison Sr. (Philip Baker Hall), is the obvious candidate, but his status as a doctor is built on a mix of superiority and hypochondria, by which no other citizen can question his fabricated ailments. So it is Tom Edison Jr., the aspiring novelist, who must balance the town’s prejudices. Before Grace arrives, a narrator (John Hurt) tells the audience that the town is not particularly keen on Tom’s many lectures. This tells the audience that Dogville is more deceptive than its homely appearance and, more importantly, that Tom isn’t necessarily a good philosopher. Hurt has it out for him as the film goes on, reminding the audience of the “young” philosopher and his “confusion” in making decisions, but Tom does just fine to explain himself without outside commentary. After a man from the nearby town nails a Wanted poster with Grace’s name on it to the Dogville church door, the town becomes skittish. Those who were reluctant to welcome Grace have their fears confirmed, and those who did trust her are silent, fearing retribution. What is Tom’s solution? Grace’s “Wanted” label has heightened her potential risk to the town, easily fixed by increasing Grace’s workload to justify the risk she brings. He is suggesting a more dangerous quid pro quo, which Grace remarks to be something a gangster would say, but Tom is convinced it will work. Grace will earn her keep twofold, and who in Dogville won’t reward a job well done?
Grace begins by playing checkers with Bill (Jeremy Davis), or filling blind Mr. McKay’s (Ben Gazzara’s) lonely hours with conversation, but as the town quickly realizes, there’s a lot not being done that could use doing. Ma Ginger needs the bushes weeded, Chuck (Stellan Skargård) could use a hand in the fields, and Martha (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) is in desperate need of emotional support. They use Grace’s inevitable failure to meet their demands as justification for her mistreatment and abuse, some of the worst behaviour coming from the children; as should be obvious to the resident philosopher, this could have been prevented. Grace is saint-like and wants to help, but is suffering from an overloaded schedule, something Tom suggested to get the town on her side. Can you see the conflict? Either Tom acknowledges the self-destructing labour loop he has created for Grace, effectively knocking his status, or he continues to shift the blame. Grace routinely vents to Tom that she is tired, to which he replies, “Let me think,” effectively siding with the town by refusing to lighten, or remove, Grace’s load. For someone concerned with helping others see outside themselves, Tom is surprisingly self-serving. If it’s a choice between self-criticism and maintaining the status-quo, Tom’s decision is already made.
As the months roll on and fewer cars ride up the mountain pass into Dogville, Grace’s duties become greater and more convoluted. After several major failures in the town’s eyes, including an attempted escape, Grace is punished with a collar around her neck chained to an iron wheel. Her duties persist at double the rate and half the pay, while the men rape her at night. Tom responds just as one would expect: when Grace is treated with some dignity by the townsfolk, such as opening a door or providing a meager shelter, he sees their momentary favor as a reflection of the general mood, not as the town’s proven method of manipulation. It is better for Grace if the town gives her an extra crust of bread for dinner, but this is no sign of improving relations. Rather, it’s a symptom of the town becoming intelligent, using their charm and Grace’s vulnerability as a means of extracting more labour. They dangle acceptance, but what they really want is a mule. Unable to decide between the town and Grace, Tom chooses those who accepted him unconditionally. He never fully turns on her, but just like the town, he promises affection in the hope of using her as an illustration. His flimsy romance with Grace quickly devolves into a need for sex, something every other man in Dogville has had with her, and he’s the one who ends up calling her father to take her away. His illustration has lost its pomp, and it’s time to let it end.
This will be obvious for anyone watching the film, but Tom is a colossal prick. He’s not an idiot, but an opportunist quickly losing the point of his illustration, if there ever was one to begin with.
The film’s ending can be summed up by Grace’s understanding of the game Tom has asked her to play. Author Jan Simons writes in “Playing the Waves”, “Grace persists in seeing the quid pro quo relationship she has with the villagers as a ‘game’ played for symbolic stakes,” an exchange of labour for inclusion, to which the only ending can be a symbolic one. In a last act of cowardice, Tom has called Grace’s father using a business card he told Grace he burned, expecting him to take her away and rid Dogville of her influence. He arrives, and in a heady conversation with Grace, convinces her to punish the residents of Dogville with his considerable means. The illustrative game Tom suggested has always had real stakes, and Grace has finally come to terms with them. Upon her orders, gangsters gun down the entire town, effectively demolishing society, but Grace hears Moses, the chalk outline of a dog, barking as they exit. She looks at the outline, and a gangster asks if they should shoot it. “No”, she says, “He’s just angry because someone’s took his bone.”
One of the only ways to end a discriminatory, capitalist status quo is to remove the incentive. Moses is only following his nature, and can still be taught, but Dogville has proven their inability to do anything other than manipulate Grace for their gain. They have learned malice, and there’s no saving that. Tom should have known better, but his humanity was hamstrung the moment he asked Grace to prove she deserved safety. In the face of death, he confesses to Grace, “Your illustration, it beat the hell out of mine… frightening, but clear.” For someone like Tom, death is just a part of the game.
Written by Cole Clark
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