notes on Dogville…


Director Lars von Trier was criticized at Cannes for never having visited America prior to his 2000 Palme d’Or winner Dancer in the Dark. Three years later, he returned to the festival with Dogville, the first film in what will be a trilogy (not coincidentally) dubbed USA.

“Just tell me that I’m not allowed to do something, or that I can’t, and I’ll always do it.” Not a surprising statement from one of the two men behind Dogme95, a manifesto that eschewed all illusion and “cosmetics” in filmmaking: props, sets, overdubbed soundtracks, lighting effects. The camera in Dogville, in true Dogme fashion, is quite literally balanced on the shoulders of von Trier. But beyond the camera work, the director’s freer stylizations begin to replace the strictures of his manifesto.

Dogville was filmed entirely in a studio in Sweden and indeed forgoes any sort of conventional setting. You’ll see Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, and James Caan acting out scenes on a black stage where houses of the small town are defined by lines of white chalk. The bare setting was inspired at least in part by the stripped-down theater productions of Bertolt Brecht. Von Trier uses the lack of a physical set to great effect. “You forget very quickly that there are no houses or whatever. This makes you invent the town for yourself but more importantly, it makes you zoom in on the people… At the beginning of my career, I made very 'filmic' films. The problem is that now, it has become too easy—all you have to do is buy a computer and you have filmic [creations].”

Brecht’s influence on the film wasn’t limited to his stark theatrical aesthetic. Dogville, the story goes, was prompted by a song from Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, “Pirate Jenny,” which came on von Trier’s car radio one day. (Both Brecht and Weill were huge influences in his mother’s life, and Brecht was “something of a domestic god” in the director’s childhood.) Prompted by the song, von Trier began to work out a narrative that centered on the theme of revenge. “I thought the most interesting thing would be to come up with a story where you build up everything leading to the act of vengeance.”

While von Trier likely relishes any criticism about the American setting and, in particular, the film’s final scenes, he admits that Dogville is in no respect a historical film or a work solely about America. “…it's about the United States but it's also about any small town anywhere in the world.”

Von Trier earned Best Director at the European Film Festival for Dogville last year. While scheduling conflicts will prevent Kidman from continuing in her lead role for the next two installments of the trilogy, von Trier is looking forward to the challenge of completing them. “I like these long stories. It's like reading a good book and leafing ahead and realizing that you've got lots and lots of pages left to read…”



Interview Sources:
1. Going Out / Interview: Lars von Trier. Times Online. 2/21/04 <,,3563-987247,00.html>
2. Stig Bjorkman. Film interviews / 'It was like a nursery - but 20 times worse'. The Guardian. 2/21/04 <,6737,1120926,00.html>
3. Dogville Interview: Lars von Trier on Dogville. AbsoluteNow. 2/21/04 <>

notes: these program notes were written for the 27th Portland International Film Festival (Portland, OR), 2004.