What—or rather, who—is Grace?
Perennially controversial and once again in a mood to provoke, Danish director Lars von Trier has in Dogville constructed a minimalist tale of a bygone era on a simple symbolic stage. The film’s depiction of evil and our own response to it inevitably generates intense debate.
The story centers on runaway Grace, hiding out from both the mob and police in the small town of the film's title. Nicole Kidman, as Grace, brings one of her finest performances to the role. She, and her story of blending in and serving the town's people, are quite subtle—almost kind—at first.
But Dogville is a huge crescendo of a film, ending on the grandest scale possible, a Shakespearean-style tragedy of Biblical proportions that's willing to swallow whole anyone that gets in the path of Grace.
The director's well-known and worn out trademark from recent films is his misogynistic treatment of the leading women in his films. Take note: Dogville is no exception to this. But to this viewer von Trier makes a habit of being concerned with capturing the suffering and, in general, the abuse of grace as well. He is a consummate artist whose ambitions are often to wrestle with or against the sky, whether he admits there's anyone up there or not.
Von Trier, as the one who holds the Joker and stacks the deck, is sometimes compared to Werner Herzog in his probing of things natural and eternal. These are artists willing to strike first and ask questions later; they are sometimes despised for their willingness to take risks.
Dogville's greatest strength is in its ability to evoke so many (sometimes infuriating) views and perspectives. It spawns multiple readings, which are as varied as its viewers. Critics often talk about the film's political agenda, but there are quite a few interpretations that are overlooked: New Testament grace in light of Old Testament law; how far grace is willing to go before judgment steps in and takes over; blood ties of a prodigal daughter and the lengths a father goes in bringing her home; and the typical critic's view, which is American puritanism (then) vs. capitalist, imperialist greed (now).
The latter is obviously the anti-American angle, and the reading, judging from the film's closing credits, isn't undeserved. The song of choice (David Bowie's "Young Americans") that plays over the credits is like poking a finger in your face if you happen to live in what the film calls, "The US of A."
There's a lot to chew on here, but the subject remains the disposition of Grace. Some viewers may forget the meaning of the word when it begins with a capital G, but that may be the deepest meaning of all in this provocative film.