“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
What type of movie is it that is variously praised to the heavens by some and viscerally censured by others? Perhaps it’s a film by Lars von Trier.
His latest, Dogville, is a depressing story of a small-town community who are lamentably short on Christian charity during the 1930s Depression era. Stylistically, this film is all over the map: quasi-literary with chapter headings and an authorial voiceover, staged theatrically with a minimalist setting in the manner of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and presented in an intentionally anti-illusionistic performance by an ensemble of fine international actors. [For those interested in the casting and filmographic details, please consult Glenn Buttkus’ incisive commentary on this Tacoma Film Club link] As a morality play, distinctly construable as religious allegory, it reveals the town’s pathetic fears and hypocritical social behaviors in scenes of sometimes disgusting abuse and humiliation. Dogville is a deliberately punitive experience, bringing most viewers to an awareness of cinematic pew-sitting and torturous worship as few films have managed in recent times. No lukewarm reactions follow von Trier’s presentations.
In terms of money-making-and-amusement values, Dogville is most likely a failure, but “success” and “failure” are hardly terms one applies to works of artistic revolutionaries, of whom I consider von Trier to be a member. Winner of two Palmes d’Or (1996 & 2000) at Cannes and many other awards, he is already considered a preeminently creative film-maker and something of a “preacher-artist,” as John Fowles labeled such provocateurs, “…whose every false or clumsy move is pounced on as hypocrisy, as arrogance, as naïveté” (Wormholes, New York: Henry Holt, 1998, p. 12). Like Peter Brook’s experimentation in film and theater (e.g. his production (1966) of Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade”), von Trier’s works are deeply disturbing as a “Theater of Cruelty”; in them entropic forces are at work in culture, in simple or complex societies: violence, cruelty, rape, all manners of crimes are constants in a disordered world. If newspapers, magazines, picture books, etc. could state the case and impress our minds with the divisiveness and psychological breakdown of human nature, provocative artists would not resort to the horrors of the human condition. Ephemerality of information does not impress ideas upon us en masse. Therefore, von Trier through his unsettling films wants to burn his ideas into audiences’ memories, just as Brecht, Pirandello, Beckett, Artaud, Ionesco, Brook, and many other artists did in years past in their theaters of ideas.
If von Trier’s films try your nerves, he’s gotten to you. Dogville, as such, is an intrusive idea, a very trying film, not easily forgotten. Not only is the film very long (almost three-hours running time) but also the actions and interplay of characters, the very verbal delivery, are performed at so torpid a pace that the viewing experience seems deliberately dispiriting. I happened to see the film twice within a short period of time--a foolish choice--and felt the second time the acute pain of worshiping in the Church of von Trier. Though all his major films are set mostly in past decades, this film-maker does not allow the moviegoer to nest comfortably in the cushioned time-machine of cinema and then go home still caught in nostalgic dreaming. His films disturb. The stage-dramatic, minimalist presentation of the events of Dogville, borrowed from Brecht’s and Pirandello’s distancing techniques, not to mention Thornton Wilder’s experiment, has never worked quite as well to effect such audience alienation. People walked out in twos and threes when I saw the film at Tacoma’s Grand Cinema. Partly, it’s because it ill-suits moviegoers to sit consciously wide-awake in the dark. We have, after all these years, become habituated to enjoy movies by sinking into a mystic dreambox, throwing ourselves into the illusions and, by identifying with characters, living vicariously in their representations of life, gorging meantime on buckets of greasy popcorn and slurping quarts of syrupy beverages, feeding as at a trough of profane sacraments. Nothing of the sort was possible as I watched Dogville; never have I felt so abstract from the events on screen, so uncomfortably strange they were. But this is not to say I wasn’t intrigued by the experience. I thought about it for days afterwards.
Since my introduction to his films with Zentropa (or Europa)(1991), probably to date, in my view, his best single big-screen film (others, though, might prefer the more conventional Breaking the Waves, a success worldwide in 1996 ), von Trier has remained for me, even with Dogville, a wonderful film-maker. The wonder of his film-making goes beyond the risks he takes in constantly spoiling people’s expectations and displeasing people’s tastes, and, in effect, sharply mocking common, current values of film entertainment. Sure, there are good reasons to find fault with some of his techniques--the awkwardly jerky and, at times, fuzzy videographing--and his storytelling--a penchant for the pathetic in female characters and sentimentality in resolutions. Many ways exist, however, to transport moviegoers and most movies are made for ecstatics. I’m beside myself to explain it, but I do not get upset, certainly not totally pissed-off-disgusted or extravagantly gushy-happy about his work. Von Trier doesn’t allow the viewer much transport, but he does stimulate. Not entertainments at all, his films don’t strive to satisfy; they agitate thoughts and feelings such that one can sense layered allusions and symbolic resonances over a landscape of artistic forms and genres. It’s no wonder works of literature are named by critics in comparisons or as possible allusions. No other deliberately irritating film-maker provokes quite as strangely. I might have said he makes extraordinary films, but that’s too emotionally neutral a term for his rare birds.
Lars von Trier is a bizarre personality. Before making his film Epidemic (1987), he converted from Judaism to Catholicism. I wonder how true that is. As Moira Sullivan, of “Movie Magazine” (4/28/04) reports in her review of Stig Björkman’s documentary Tranceformer (1997), von Trier states in the film’s opening, “Everything that is written about me is a lie.” Surely he’s tongue in cheek about that. If you have viewed any of the other documentaries which purport to reveal aspects of von Trier’s life and ideas (Lars from 1-10 (1998), a short by Sophie Fiennes on the Dogma95 tenets, and The Name of This Film is Dogma95 (2000), presented by film journalist Richard Kelly, though the director is unnamed in accordance with one of the ten Dogma rules), you soon realize he’s quite perverse: at times disarmingly honest and then, quick to change, prone to fabrications. For instance, at the end of The Name ... is Dogma95, von Trier claims Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement, was a prime inspiration. Oh, sure!
By all indications he is deliberately contrary, psychologically compulsive, an artist with fire in the head, subject to all sorts of phobias. He fears traveling and has never been in the U.S. because of this phobia. In film-school, like a willful schoolboy, he rejected his mentors’ advice and filmed by principles the very opposite of their teaching. Not like a good Boy Scout at all. With his early experiments, having irked most of the judging intelligentsia of film festivals by giving them the finger, either literally or figuratively, at awards ceremonies when he won in certain categories, von Trier seems bent on making abrasive films that will amaze, embarrass, shock, or anger the public. Like Federico Fellini, who kept a tight directorial, if not dictatorial, rein on his actors, von Trier has a reputation of being difficult, contradictory, nervously inventive, and easily irritated, going by the past reports of how stressful and disconcerting it is for actors to work with him. He’s very hard on actresses--and in turn on audiences. He’s possessed by an almost neurotic need to educate and re-educate audiences, like a pedantic schoolmaster, to transform the cinema from halls of delusive Huxleyan enjoyments into churches of hard truths. This ambition may kill his popularity in time, but as a Wunderkind, he’s captured cinéphiles the world over who wonder what the wild child will come up with next, just as Picasso did over the decades in his diverse painting styles.
For all the peculiar stylistics, in the main thesis of his films, I don’t think von Trier has changed so much as people think. Thematically, he depicts terrible changes of fortune in the lives of innocent, simple people, mostly young women. One exception: his Medea, in the1987 film made for Danish TV, would seem to represent the one major, mature, passionate activist. Medea’s resolution is an act she deliberates on and performs herself. His other women characters, alienated by society, act out of helplessness. His ordinary folk, too, whether representing the collective town or a family, come off rather badly; sadly meek in nature, lacking in that loving neighborliness that would make the human condition much improved in most social situations. Von Trier has hinted that Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby had somehow inspired Dogville, and whether or not that is true, it is quite an apt allusion in one or two respects: Dickens’ underdog characters are put through hell by grossly hypocritical governors and caretakers, especially Nicholas’ sister Kate, who is tormented by disgusting advances of supposedly noble gentlemen, who are encouraged by Kate’s own uncle to romance her for his own material interests. Such humiliation, subjugation, torture and enslavement are perpetrated in ever more alarming degrees by the town folk throughout Dogville. However, the innocence or reserve portrayed in Nicole Kidman’s Grace is quite suspect, not nearly as natural as in the characters of Emily Watson’s simple-minded Bess in Breaking the Waves, or Björk’s passive Czech immigrant Selma in Dancer in the Dark. Perhaps because of her need for refuge, there are reasons for Grace’s passivity; however, her sufferance needs to be questioned in light of the ideas von Trier intends to convey.
It would be nice to see a clear sequence between the series of films Lars von Trier has called his trilogies. Although Dogville, for its treatment of the vulnerable young woman by an unforgiving society, would likely be comparable to the trilogy of Breaking and Dancer, word is that Grace’s Dogville experience represents the first “play” of a new trilogy. From the total von Trier filmography, The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987), and Zentropa (1991) have been called a European trilogy by one or two critics. That leaves Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), his only true Dogma film, and Dancer in the Dark (2000) as a trilogy of some kind. The use of “trilogy” is probably not accidental. Since his Medea, a Greek tragedy known from Euripides’ extant work, upon which most interpreters base modern versions of that mythic play, it may very well imply that von Trier has deliberately formed his tragic stories in the Euripidean vein. [Though, trilogies of Greek drama had ended in Sophocles’ early era and none of Euripides’ work was trilogically grouped.] Like Euripides’ Iphigeneia, Phaedra, Alcestis, etc., von Trier’s innocent women suffer to prove a point: to show up weak-willed society and its fickle morality for what they are. Nevertheless, there’s much more point to his films than descriptions of society.
In light of the characterizations of a central young woman, I would call the latter series (Idiots, Breaking, Dancer) a trilogy of pathos. Another might tip the label, not without reason, towards “bathos,” particularly in the portrayal of Selma in Dancer. However emotionally poignant the impact might be, the role of Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) in The Idiots stands apart, an example of von Trier’s less-controlled manipulations. Karen is a gentle young woman who joins the Idiots’ crazy commune when they come upon her in a restaurant where they are baiting proper society by play-acting imbecility—“spazzing” they call it. As a timid, befuddled soul, she is perceptive enough to remark that the troupe of young apes seem to have a cruel streak in mocking society. Knowing their scheme, Karen is sensitive to crossing sensitive boundaries; not always amused, she is honest to speak her mind and heart. Though the leader Stoffer (Jens Albinus) rationalizes the maniacal “spazzing” antics as a search for the inner-child, to allow the original self to emerge, he comes off as a scheming manipulator, the biggest phony of them all. Nevertheless, the commune accepts Karen unconditionally; they treat her kindly, offering soothing therapy in a swimming pool.
Little do the Idiots know just who among them are seriously ill or who are gaming. After the story reaches a turning point with an orgiastic free-for-all party, they find the next day that young Josephine (Louise Mieritz) may be in need of help. Her father, a decent man, not particularly taken in by the group’s manners, has sought her whereabouts and come to take her home because, he says, she is seriously ill. Karen, as the viewer may have suspected from her timidity, is suffering a genuine trauma, from which staying with the idiotic cheeky monkeys has allowed a diversionary respite, a safe house, in spite of her suspicion about their cruel mockery. Out of the shadows of secondary characterhood, Karen emerges finally to reveal her full dimensionality in the closing act. Following a spazzing exercise devised by Stoffer to test the troupe’s convictions, Karen returns to her family to find them inhospitable to her. It’s a houseful of rude, insensitive ignoramuses. Without compassion, they upbraid and berate her for running away, giving her no comfort for the terrible loss of her child and her resulting distemper. Though Karen may appear to “spazz” before them at the dinner table by regurgitating her pudding, hers is an appropriate act of revulsion against the lack of empathy from her husband and kin. The spazzing has a therapeutic effect; it helps her to say goodbye and good riddance to her miserable, heartless family. Essentially, in The Idiots there is a sentimental dénouement with positive implications. This nice resolution is not usual in von Trier story patterns. None of this action is genuinely tragic; pathetic motivations were at work and got resolved as if by an accidental turn of the plot. In the narrative pattern, a secondary character saved the story. Not a perfect film, but the characters and plot move in a freer vein, under less restraint than in any other von Trier experiment. Lukas Moodysson directed quite successfully a similar repertory-group work in his story of loosey-goosey commune life in Together (2000).
The role of Karen bears a likeness to Dogville’s Grace, for the latter arrives as a timid, if not traumatized, refugee seeking safety in the Colorado mining town populated by a collection of lethargic folk and half-wits, far less animated than the band of The Idiots, but idiots nevertheless, seemingly unable to distinguish illusion from reality. In the trying times of the Depression, the rural townspeople are not at all a community, each member acting in his/her own self- interest, reluctant to come together to share their sad lots and consider ways to better their common existence. Grace is pathetically passive, being at their mercy for help to escape the mobsters who tried to shoot her down. The town pretends to accept Grace, but they never truly take her or her goodness into their hearts. Perhaps they’ve learned, knowing themselves for what they are, that goodness is illusory. Who knows what the minister taught them before he left town or was chased out of it by the horrors of their lives? Dogville is a town without spirit, without pity, without heart. No place for Grace there really. Like Karen, Bess, and Selma, Grace is painfully impassive and unassertive, suffering degrading treatment at the hands of all the town folk. What a contrast the town becomes next to the Shangri-La she imagined she’d found upon arrival when she tells Tom Edison (the non-writing novelist played by Paul Bettany) that Dogville seems a town where simple, good folk are living out their wishes and dreams. As her name and refined features imply, divine Grace plays the catalyst among the Brechtian-Pirandellonian peasants, acting as a devious angel on assignment to educate them, to bring out their true nature, attracting actions as if she were a decoy of tragic mistakes. Eventually there’s not a good man to be found. The dénouement here is a bloody Euripidean resolution of the Dogvillians’ confused and disillusioned existences. It is not unlike Flannery O’Connors’ solution for incorrigible people who lack all grace: swing out the deus-ex-machina, like the Misfit in his Black Maria, and let him and his henchmen sweep the street clean. Grace, just as Medea, knows she can fly off in a chariot to Daddy’s shining citadel.
Does Lars von Trier have a purpose in bringing the passive young women onto the stage to be abused? As tragic figures, I’d be tempted to describe von Trier’s female characters as Antigones. The main characteristic that argues against the Antigone complex is the dreadfully innocent, passive state of mind, the lack of conscious rebellion, in the young women. The Greek tragedians and their audience prized thoughtful assertiveness in the protagonist’s actions. The defiance or thwarting of authority by the woman (more or less parental/familial/social in Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dogville, mostly civic in Dancer) is not the willful, deliberate act that Sophocles’ Antigone performs to solve the dilemma in burying her banned sibling and thereby defying the law of the city and her Uncle Creon’s edict. Von Trier’s women are martyrs of pathos, akin to Euripides’ characters, not tragic figures in the Aristotelian sense. Morality really stinks in Trierdom. Like Euripides, von Trier blasts good intentions, grants no catharsis, leaves audiences hanging. His tragedies mate beauty and brute in a dreadful fusion.
Early on in Zentropa, it was not just a woman who took the punishment. With Leo, the young American idealist of Zentropa, returning to post-war Germany to help with reconstruction, von Trier placed him in a hopeless labyrinth. The Kafkaesque uncertainties of Zentropa’s world made it impossible for the befuddled boy to slay any of the monsters that beset him. Leopold’s willing obedience to all sides of a corrupt society, Bess’s obedience to her husband to seek erotic experiences, Selma’s private obsession to horde cash at the expense of communal living, Grace’s experiment in forgiveness at the expense of her humanity—all these states of innocence, alienation and loneliness are problems of the films. Because the problems are incapable of straightforward resolutions, the films themselves are in fact tragic; the audience does not have easy answers. If there are resolutions presented, they are inevitably unwise and catastrophic. With no fine examples to follow, the myths of human goodness smashed, the audience is left disturbed, with much to mull over, stirred out of the comfort zone of thinking what a wonderful world this is. Now the task is at hand: to find a community of interest who recognize the cultural disease and want to do something about it.
This pedagogic element in his films puts many people off. Von Trier, like Fellini, is a natural born liar with his wild fictional presentations. The hope is one day he will find a better balance in story and purpose to wow his audience with an edifying and entertaining big, fat lie.
I gave this movie a rating of 4 stars.