Dogville (Lars Von Trier) allows interpretation from many perspectives. As SP said, it is like a Shakespeare play in that respect amongst others. I focus below on a set of ideas, perhaps more words, I encountered in Lacanian writing about the film. Zizek refers to Dogville in A perverts guide to Cinema, and elsewhere other writers pick up on his ideas to develop further a Lacanian interpretation. I have little or no understanding of Lacan and all of that second hand, but the film did allow me to entertain the thought that there was something that I could draw from it about the other, the encounter with the other and how that founds essential elements of our lives and can act as an explanatory framework for understanding.
By the other I am not thinking about the other person although the other person is the focus for the other; rather the other is that which we believe is ourselves, our projection of ourselves in the world. Thus the other is not what people think about me but what I (more or less indecently) think about myself. However the film describes a subject fulfilling the desires of the other (what I think I am) using a set of others and conversely, other people using the subject (me) to fulfill their desires (what they think they are). This is how I, very incompletely, am trying to understand the film.
Grace is on the run, from some incoherent danger and she is offered refuge in Dogville if she can get them to accept her. The film has two halves: firstly Grace endears herself to the townsfolk and secondly she falls from Grace, suffering for what she has done. She is blameless in this but she, as we hear at the end, considers the townsfolk innocent, like an animal is innocent within its own nature. At one point in the film Grace says to Tom that she feels she’s nearly made it, referring to her work ingratiating herself with the Townsfolk. Tom replies (more less quoting):
“Nearly done it, or nearly half way as we say in Dogville”
Following her acceptance, the blind man, Jack McCay, says during his speech at the feast day of Independence, that “Dogville thanks Grace for showing herself to them”.
That then is the first half, not just of the film but of knowledge, her knowledge of the town and their knowledge of her. The scene of thanks to Grace is followed immediately by the arrival of the law who put up a wanted poster for her – Grace is wanted, there is a reward, and even though it is clear that the charges are trumped up, it is, in the eyes of the town, her fall from Grace. The townspeople break the law, they transgress and they assuage their guilt, perhaps, by making Grace culpable.
Grace, as Tom had said (his knowledge is his guilt), was only half way because she had yet to encounter the other: that is the one who is ultimately unknowable except through abjection. The film reminded me of that moment I experienced when I first fell in love: I couldn’t bear not knowing what my lover was thinking, I was angry at losing control of a part of myself through that. This is a root for jealously, for fear, for anger, for aggression to the other: we can’t know them; we can’t own them except through abasement, through violence. Grace tries to please everybody – she gives herself up to everyone and this ends with them taking what pleasures they wanted from her, despite her attempts to escape. She gives up of herself, always looking forward and not back, always willing to understand weakness. She keeps back however her own otherness, her personal biography is only revealed at the end and when it emerges it wreaks havoc, destroying the other.
The second half is then a story of indulgence, it is the story of how we encounter desire, how this drive to control the other leads us to be disgusting, abusive, as Chuck says to her in a scene before he rapes her: “You can’t really share my pleasure”. Grace indulged herself (her arrogance) by controlling the townsfolk through acceding to their needs, ones they claimed they didn’t have. She brings them into being like this. The film doesn’t make her guilty though of her own condition any more than she makes the town guilty of theirs. It is the very nature of the other, that it is not you and cannot be simply pleased, the town cannot protect her and she cannot escape to it. The child, Jason, desirous of being beaten, tells her that if she beats him the town will never need to know that she has beaten him, if she doesn’t beat him, he’ll tell the town she did – desire borders perversion in Dogville.
The child wishes to have its entire parent, to accede to their desire and for the parent to accede to theirs. This is the subject of the second half of the film, the one where we learn the cost of the desires of others. The cost of not limiting Grace’s willingness to pleasure others. Her desire to accept and be accepted by others, to escape her own father, her acceptance of others, her fanciful martyrdom that she believes will leave her without the need to exercise power.
Tom berates the town, early on in the film, for being closed in their own world. When Grace arrives people say there is nothing needs doing but that nothing becomes her slavery. She offers herself and gives into desire, ones that evolve, as the village transgresses, into ever more abusive, perverse actions.
I don’t experience the film as one condemning desire; it is not a Buddhist appeal to overcome the self, to recognise a cycle of desire/satisfaction/disappointment/desire. It is about the costs of wanting the other.
The final scene in which the townsfolk all die can be read as the conclusion to this discussion: the price for truly encountering the other can only be their death and destruction.
So just a fairly incoherent note about a film which can be viewed through so many lenses. It is a disturbing film and after I watched the final three scenes last night I couldn’t bear to write about it as I was too threatened by what it had suggested to me about myself. My desires over the other; my desire as controlling others. If I keep this blog going maybe I’ll address that in some way.
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