On ‘Dogville’, light, color, and Lars von Trier’s hidden spirituality

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Dogville represents a controversial and compelling entry in arthouse cinema of the 21st century. A response to Trier’s work in the Dogma 95 movement, Dogville attempts to invoke the mystery and essence of cinema. Narrative filmmakers often rely on techniques that break the fourth wall to create an awareness of the cinematic process. Pacing often becomes a valuable technique, and the extreme speed or sloth of a particular film can be used as a means of jolting the audience from their comfort zone. Dogville veers between these techniques as a means of revealing the medium at its most essential. It embraces allegory to engage with these questions and fears relating to social structure and innate human nature while hinging on experimental qualities as a means of exploring and challenging the notion of the cinematic medium.

With a rich legacy of experimental filmmakers who have devoted their careers to these ideas, Trier’s experiment can superficially seem redundant. Filmmakers like Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage have already pared the medium down to its barest qualities, removing the need for story, action, and actor as a means of revealing a simple, albeit challenging, cinematic identity. Light, an obsession of one of Dogville’s inhabits, emerges as the essential quality needed in film (I wonder if any film has better expressed this then Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, when night falls and scenery fades and only the moon persists in fragmented images that momentarily illuminate the screen.), as even a black and empty screen has been projected using light; film can only be defined by its luminosity, as everything else is too exclusive.

If we are to pin down the identity of a painting as some kind of canvas with paint, film becomes increasingly difficult to define in these terms in the digital age. Light can easily define most visual mediums, and as many filmmakers have devoted their craft to exploring its qualities, as have many artists. One immediately think of the impressionists, who with up-rise of manufactured and flexible paint were able to bring the aisle outdoors and capture in real time with great ease the infinite subtleties of refracted light. It is J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), a pre-Impressionist, who defined his work through light more than any other artist.

Turner is best known for his depictions of nature, particularly its tumultuous and unpredictable side. Many of his best known paintings depicted storm, fire and fog: especially in how they transform and reflect light. Turner’s later work is downright abstract, and detail is obliterated in favour of games of light as he attempted to capture its formless pervasiveness. Unlike the impressionists, this obsession was not a study in texture or optics. Though observational, his work was extremely expressionistic. His work seemingly a searching for a spiritual reconciliation. His play with light a means of capturing a complex relationship with a contradictory Christian deity.

This may seem like a far cry from the work of Lars Von Trier, whose films often seem self-consciously opposed to traditional forms of spirituality. His work, though, engages directly with the human concept of self-identity, especially as tied with ego. This abstract relationship between subject and perception tie Trier to the experiential qualities of artists like Turner. Light becomes totally unifying, a formal and thematic tool.

In “Chapter 3: In which Grace indulges in a shady piece of provocation,” Grace hints at her true and flawed nature. Grace’s visits to Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara) did not involve her helping him with menial work, she served solely as a companion to a lonely old man who never left his home. The defining characteristic of his home are dark curtains that hide away the light, although everyone knows that he is blind, he has refused to admit it to himself or the world. Grace yanks open these curtains and pulls him out of his delusion. He proceeds to describe the quality of light he cannot even see, saying:

“In Switzerland they call it the Alpenglunen. That’s the light that reflects from the highest peaks after the sun goes down behind the mountains and now it’s gone.”

The light itself is a glowing ochre. Ochre is often a golden-yellow, but there exists a darker version that can be akin to a red. A true Alpenglunen has a reddish hue, and as beautiful as it may be, its peculiarity invokes hellish imagery – primal, primitive. Ochre is one of the most ancient of colours at the disposal of humanity. Found readily around in the world, the ochre pigment is most often derived from mineral oxide deposits in clay. It is used in most pre-historic art, and some argue that the earliest example of painting include a variation on the ochre colour.

This scene is a first hint at Grace’s true and basic nature. The devolution of Dogville is tied to a primary sin in every inhabitant, and though Grace becomes the victim of their collective ego, she is not innocent herself. That does not justify the treatment she receives by any means, but it certainly makes it more interesting. This scene reveals an innate flaw in both social structure and the experiment at hand. The “problem” with Dogville is not something that was created; it existed from the beginning.

The natural and cyclical way that the people of Dogville fall into a pattern of oppression and abuse is pointedly ironic. The twisted view of charity as being two-sided and the people’s own poverty and cultural degeneration at the hands of other, higher powers, makes their attack on Grace all the more violent. Their steadfast belief that they are doing her a favour is shudder inducing. Though Trier’s cinema suggests, especially in it’s ironic photo montage, that much of the ills on display in his allegorical town are due to a culture of oppression, the violence in the hearts of each and every characters runs far deeper.

As Grace reflects on her actions, which forced Jack McKay to admit his blindness, she fears that he will turn against her and she will be ejected from the small town has that has provided her comfort in a time of need. The scene certainly marks a turning point in the narrative, and shows fear as a motivator for both the greatest and the lowest human action.

Standing in that golden-ochre light is something else at play here. The natural pre-disposition of humanity towards cruelty and oppression emerges, but so does its appreciation for beauty. In that light one can scarce believe someone could even see the landscape, but it stands before Grace in all of it’s majesty. Even Jack McKay, in his hazy memories of landscapes and the words of writers, is somehow taken by the beauty of the moment in spite of the incredible sorrow that is befalling him. It is why the moment, which could easily have seemed so cruel, feels so soft.

Dogville, with its bare locales, is similarly able to evoke the beauty and majesty of a world that artists have struggled from the beginning to describe. Art, through the touch of humanity, transforms landscape and universe into something new. Trier’s vision may paint a dire portrait of a doomed social structure but it nonetheless offers to it’s audience a unique splendor that flourishes in the minimalist setting. Trier’s art is magnificent, and he embodies what Picasso once said: “There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but there are others who, thanks to their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.” Humanity’s inevitable doom is not tragic as much as it is a tragedy. We have a fatal flaw to explain our downfall, but it exists amidst many joys, beauties and talents that have allowed our species to flourish. They may take a backseat in the broad allegory of oppression, but they exist nonetheless in the confidence and beauty of Trier’s craft.

 

Justine Smith

 


3 Comments
  1. Christopher Connell says

    I adore both of the films. Because of Mann’s recent work, I think he qualifies as one of the best filmmakers working today (for me tied with Claire Denis for #1). Public Enemies is the best fin-de-siecle style film since Peckinpah. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is one of my favorite American horror film of the past decade.

    Digital has a stillness to it because no film runs through the camera.

    I am always wary of some writers (i.e. Paul Schrader) who throw out that term too lightly. I think Ignatiy Vishnevetsky had a good piece on Sounds, Images about Bresson where he mentions that. It’s very hard to do by my definition, but your justification is valid.

    I’m agnostic/secular humanist myself I do believe that whatever religion we have is human invention, but I think that a film is only spiritual when a human character accepts the unknown – which in a way Grace does.

    I think 2 or 3 Things is okay, with a few great elements like that coffee scene and Godard’s whispered pseudo-secretive narration.

  2. Christopher Connell says

    It’s interesting that you mention Turner in your review but don’t mention the stillness and impressions that digital photography affords as essential to Dogville’s aesthetic because I was working on a piece that visually compares two digitally shot films to a few paintings I particularly admire (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane to Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows and Public Enemies to an undecided impressionist (Morisot?… Guillaumin, maybe?)

    However, I cannot see the spirituality that you speak of in Von Trier. To me, his films exist in Earthbound worlds with mercy as human invention and oppression as human instinct.

    Embarrassingly enough I haven’t heard that Picasso quote until now, but now that I see it, I can’t help but think of the coffee scene in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her where the coffee in close-up recalls a cosmic swirl and then bubbles flock together to resemble a single-cell organism in interphase.

    P.S. Please keep up with this kind of thing, I love when film-writers can see beyond that single medium.

    1. Justine says

      Are you an admirer of the digital films you mention? I am a hue fan of both, and I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who liked All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. Those would be interesting comparisons, you should give it a go. I always find cross-medium comparisons illuminating but difficult. The movement of impressionism versus the stillness of digital would be interesting. I’ve never heard someone describe digital as “still”, but it’s a spot on comparison, I’m surprised it never occurred to me. Then again, I’d struggle to actually articulate why it’s still… might be an interesting challenge. I know digital when I see it, but to describe it is something else entirely.

      I tend to view any films that are fascinated with human nature as being spiritual. Perhaps because of my own atheistic roots, I am fascinated with religion and spiritualism as an extension of the human ego. I tend to see any human-bound thesis on morality and beauty as being spiritual.

      I haven’t seen that particular film yet. I think generally any filmmaker who can challenge the way we see as being someone worth watching. All the great modernist filmmakers are able to create singular and new images. It’s a rare but valuable gift.

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