My summer with Lars: “Dogville,” jouissance, destruction

As far as LvT’s films go, Dogville (2004) affords a certain measure of narrative satisfaction that we don’t necessarily get from, say, Dancer in the Dark—namely, the kind of satisfaction that comes from seeing poetic justice served.  (In Dogville, set in the realm of American archetype, poetic justice takes the form of frontier justice.)  Linda Badley notes that Dogville serves as a neat corrective to LvT’s sagas of female martyrdom.  Here, the bedraggled Grace (Nicole Kidman, in one of her most impressive performances) manages to turn the tables on her oppressors after suffering roughly two hours of systematic abuse and torment at their hands.  Grace and the film go out in a blaze of gunfire and gasoline.  It’s a climax to which the film’s deliberately paced three hours have been slowly but steadily building.  Dogville is so long and stark, and its plot so frustrating, and its characters so hateful, and its heroine so maddeningly passive, and her travails so surreal and intricate, and John Hurt's narration so blithely convoluted (it seems to have been written in the style of Henry James) that after two and a half hours you feel just about ready to, well, explode—which is exactly what the film facilitates, in the form of its explosively violent conclusion. 

Critics have debated the ethics of this ending, in which Grace suddenly shifts from stoic victim to angel of vengeance; some have apparently read Grace as a figure through which vT criticizes the second Bush administration’s attempts to morally justify its own acts of violence in the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan.  Implicit in this theory is the notion that Grace becomes as reprehensible as her victimizers when she decides to solve conflicts through violence.  But such a reading ignores the differences with which Grace and the citizens of Dogville are characterized, and the ways in which the film encourages almost total identification with Grace and thus justifies her actions (though not without recognizing the irony of her final about-face).  On more than one occasion we come to see the town through her eyes, in all of its horror—its seemingly friendly small-town types suddenly transformed into animals (see screengrab below).  Grace's massacre does not read as a slaughter of innocents, but rather as an act of supreme vindication.  If the film is indeed an anti-American attack—which is not unlikely—it takes the form of von Trier's fantasy of obliterating America’s legions of small-minded, petty, sadistic hypocrites, with the vengeful Grace as the instrument of that fantasy. 

We might call the pleasure afforded by the end of Dogville an example of jouissance, Jacques Lacan’s word for the kind of orgasmic pleasure, innately connected to the death drive, that attends pure annihilation.  The same pleasure-in-destruction can be found at the moment when the planets collide at the end of Melancholia, and (to a slightly lesser extent) when the plague breaks out at the dinner party at the end of Epidemic—a kind of hysterically funny and grotesque “Masque of the Red Death” scene.  vT’s films are often so cruel and twisted that ordinary happy endings wouldn’t merely seem improbable; they would feel unsatisfying, limp.  The only catharsis his films provide lies in their rending of the filmic universe itself. 

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