The town of Dogville is filled with Trump voters. Not merely the aspect of their working class status, but their benevolent condescension to the one that doesn’t belong in the town. Their justification for abuse, for prejudice, for causing trauma, for turning a blind eye. Even the intellectual among them makes logical leaps to justify his actions, which seem all the more anti-intellectual. They are both beholden to a particular system of homemade bureaucracy as well as suspicious of it and anyone else that threatens their way of life.
But, sure, Dogville might be the fictional creation of Lars von Trier for his Brechtian experiment from 2003, yet there is something terribly resonant in it for the viewer living in a country that just elected a figure as shameless as Donald Trump.
The townspeople of Dogville are paradoxical: those that want to hold others accountable yet refuse to be held accountable themselves.
“The residents of Dogville were good, honest folks,” says the Narrator. Of course they are.
There are no traces of Franklin D. Roosevelt, except maybe the hint of a voice on the radio, but the Depression is all over it. And with that, comes a resentment, not only of a so-called establishment, but of the other.
Grace (Nicole Kidman) is someone whose niceness can attempted to be owned by the people of Dogville. Her kindness, consideration, willingness. Her “golden heart”. She has empathy for whom it is negligible was to whether they deserve it. She’s kind of like a Vox explainer.
So her father (James Caan), a mobster, after months of chasing her, reads her for filth:
Father: You called me arrogant. But that is exactly what I don’t like about you. It’s you that is arrogant. No, you do not pass judgment, because you sympathize with them. A deprived childhood and a homicide isn’t necessarily a homicide, right? The only thing you can blame is circumstances. Rapists and murderers may be the victims, according to you, but I, I call them dogs. And if they’re lapping up their own vomit, the only way to stop them is with a lash.
Grace: But dogs only obey their own nature, so why shouldn’t we forgive them?
Father: Dogs can be taught many useful things, but not if we forgive them every time they obey their own nature.
Grace: So, I’m arrogant. I’m arrogant because I forgive people.
Father: My God, can’t you see how condescending you are when you say that? I mean you have, you have this preconceived notion that nobody – listen – that nobody can possibly attain the same high ethical standards as you, so you exonerate them. I cannot think of anything more arrogant than that. You, my child, my dear child, you forgive others with excuses that you would never in the world permit for yourself.
Grace: Why shouldn’t I be merciful? Why?
Father: no, no, no, you should, you should be merciful, when there’s time to be merciful. But you must maintain your own standards. You owe them that. You owe them that. The penalty you deserve for your transgression, they deserve for their transgressions.
Grace: They’re human beings, Dad.
Father: no, no, no, of course, but does every human being need to be accountable for their actions? Of course they do, but you don’t even give them that chance. And that is extremely arrogant.
Grace: The people living here are doing their best under very hard circumstances.
Father: But, is their best really good enough?
She steps out of the car and scans the town, as her father’s cronies surround the main street. After nearly three hours of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, she stands there, and considers the people of Dogville. The narrator elaborates, “How could she ever hate them, for what was at bottom merely their weakness?”
But then she finally sees the light, as the Thornton Wilder-inspired staging and lighting literally reveals the answer to her question.
Kidman looks through and past the camera, her face changing as her mind does. The careful consideration of her decision becomes suddenly potent and immediate. She agrees with her father: “Shoot them and burn the town down.”
It’s awkward for carnage to feel the way that it does in Dogville, but then again, the conversation that Grace and her father have in the car is, at its core, an uncomfortable one.
But the rhetoric used in that scene informed much of the election coverage: an empathy that enabled an abuser to ascend into office, enabled an unseriousness with critical issues. That empathy, in think pieces and in news stories, reeked of the same kind of condescension that Grace’s father accused her of. If they weren’t violently racist, xenophobic, or bigoted, they nonetheless turned a blind eye and let one take power. Their situation does not absolve them of their abuses. The narratives of people wanting to shake up the establishment might not hold water if the exit polls are to be believe and if the demographic statistics are to be taken seriously.
The unleashing of pure anger and fury at those who do not wish you to either be alive or have any humanity or dignity is, in the context of the film, cathartic. The tension and hurt and pain and trauma was released. And you feel that vicariously watching it happen. Maybe there’s a little bit of shock and dismay, and maybe that’s a good thing.
And so was peacefully putting that on display at the Trump Tower last night. Everything seemed cemented, solidified and more real. The calls to action were loud and clear. Donald Trump is president elect. And, while I certainly won’t use Grace or her father’s tactics, I’ll fight for my life and the lives of others in marginalized communities with everything I’ve got.
Obviously, I don’t condone what happens at the end of the film. But watching the film, there’s a reclamation going on. A fight.
I’ve watched the film dozens of times, and I couldn’t figure out, for the longest time, why watching it felt so satisfying. It’s a three hour long, emotionally draining film. But then I realized. Dogville is a revenge fantasy against oppression.