Double Review: Dogville and Manderlay

Today I’m gonna be reviewing two movies in Lars von Trier’s as-yet-unfinished “USA Trilogy.” They’re both worth seeing for the unique style in which they are made, but more about that in the reviews.

Dogville (2003)

Dogville is possibly Lars von Trier’s most widely disputed movie to date. Everyone seems to have an opinion on it, and more often than not, that opinion is divided. Half think it’s brilliant, and the other half despise it. Some have called it anti-American, others sexist, and others have condemned its explicit, “unnecessary” violence.

Well, first thing’s first, since a review is based on opinion, here’s mine: It’s fucking amazing. I loved every moment of Dogville, and while the 3-hour runtime might seem a bit excessive, it still manages to be worth it for the amazing, gruesome, Tarantino-esque finale. And if you don’t like the runtime, then try get your hands on the Australian copy, which is roughly 50 minutes shorter.

Lars von Trier has a habit of making the female protagonists in his movies martyrs for their cause. While Dogville and Manderlay share the same protagonist, Grace, it is debatable whether you want to use that term. Nicole Kidman plays her brilliantly, diving into the role and adding just the right amount of gental naivety and sinister background to her character.

She plays the aforementioned Grace, a woman who stumbles into the titular town and asks its citizens to hide her from the mob, who for some unknown reason, are after her. The citizens are at first dubious, but they decide to hide her in exchange that she helps them with their daily chores and jobs. This soon spirals widely out of control as the “chores” become harder and the “jobs” turn into slave work, leading to mistreatment, spitefulness, rape and murder.

If you’ve seen Dogville, you might find it strange that I’ve yet to mention the most notable detail about the way the film was made, and the thing that turns most people off. In fact, it is an amazing artistic choice and works perfectly. What is it? Well, von Trier decided to film the entire movie on a stage, where all the buildings are nonexistent, their presence marked by chalk lines on the ground. It’s as if we’re watching a play, and the film never leaves that small set (except for the scene in the limo near the end). It’s really quite amazing that it was filmed in this manner, but it’s strangely suitable and makes for an even more invigorating and shocking movie experience, particularly in a rape scene where it has a simultaneously comic, ironic and tragic effect.

Dogville contains some surprising cameos from many actors, including Philip Baker Hall, Ben Gazzara and James Caan, all in great roles (particularly the latter). They serve the movie brilliantly, isolating it with their presence and making it seem more strange and mysterious.

But the striking chord about Dogville, the thing that really sticks, is the ending. Lars von Trier rushes to this apocalyptic end and thrashes into it with such a force that it is like a cruel, sickening but brutally satisfying denouement. You will be shocked at its excess, but unable to turn your head away from the screen, and when the ironic and disturbing credits start playing, you’ll have your mouth dropped, trying to comprehend how von Trier has gotten away with it.

My Rating:

 5/5

Is It Worth Adding To Your Netflix Queue?:

Manderlay (2005)

The follow-up to Dogville replaces Nicole Kidman with Bryce Dallas Howard. The choice might at first seem foolish or mistaken, but Howard steps up to the role, jumps in and delivers.

The film resurrects the theme of slavery brought up in Dogville, but this time goes further with it. Our protagonist, Grace, abandons her father (James Caan is replaced by Willem Dafoe here) to help a small town, the eponymous Manderlay, in its struggle. The town is run by a rich white family, who are still using black people as slaves, unaware this is now forbidden. When the family’s head dies, Grace feels it is her job to take over and convince the black citizens that they should be free. However, they do not all share her views.

Howard really steals the show here, playing Grace with conviction and determination in a manner which Kidman failed to provide. Her attitude is fresh and bold, and it seems as if she is unstoppable.

Like Dogville, Manderlay is filmed on a stage, but this time von Trier is less ambitious, with a few extra doors and props available to make the action work a little better. Like the predecessor, it is narrated suitably well by John Hurt, observing the action casually and almost regretfully.

As far as sequels go, this is terrific, and some have said it outplays the original. It does have a great twist, and a decent ending, but all in all it doesn’t retain the gusto and daring provocation of Dogville. Nevertheless, it is a powerful cinematic work.

Character is key here, as it was in Dogville, and von Trier adapts his characters in the same manner as usual, but with more noticeable flair; in fact, you could say that Manderlay contains his best example of character transformation, such as in the whipping scene at the end, a truly frightening set piece. But then again, he was always good with his characters, and while the lovable, foolish, fearsome but in the end relatively harmless Grace manages to intrigue and repel, it’s characters like Bess MacNeill from Breaking the Waves and Selma from Dancer in the Dark that we yearn for. Characters with freedom and innocence. There is no innocence or freedom here, even after the slaves are freed. Only a sense of foreboding, and the inevitability of trouble in the future.

My Rating:

4/5

Is It Worth Adding To Your Netflix Queue?:

So those’re my reviews. Got anything to say about Dogville or Manderlay, or Lars von Trier in general? Say it in the comments below.

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About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on July 5, 2011, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great reviews of films that certainly look interesting, Just wanted to know is Dogville as violent as some people say it is, some say that it is unnecessary. What do you think?

    • Dogville, particularly in its second half, does get quite violent, and many say its conclusion (which I think is amazing) is too gratuitous in its content. I disagree. I think it’s very effective, and works in the film’s favour. Definitely worth seeing.

      • Thanks, I’m interested to see it because of the way it is filmed using only a sound stage.

        • I see. That does add something to the film – particularly in one gruelling rape scene – but von Trier does a good job of luring the audience in so after a while they don’t notice it. For a film shot on a sound stage, it’s pretty damn effective in creating a real presence and location from nothing.

          • Thanks I’ll be sure to check them out. I have recently posted an article asking which director brings out the best performances form actresses. You should check it out some time.

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