Holy mother of crows.
I don't know that I'll ever call this one of my favorite films, but for the love of all that is good and true, it's going to stick with me like few others. Most films are geared to make a huge opening weekend splash and then immediately evaporate. It's really something to stumble across one where the filmmakers have so clearly thought, "All righty, let's go ahead and add to The Canon."
(Re "filmmakers": yes, chief among them here is Lars von Trier, but Berkeley trained me to refer to all films as having plural authors — "did he do his own cinematography? did he act all the roles? then it's not just him, is it?" I can hear my profs ask.)
In 1992 I went with some people to go see a movie. Reservoir Dogs was playing. We saw Jennifer 8 instead. I still wonder what it would have been like to walk into Reservoir Dogs, long before the Tarantino hype, having no idea what we were in for. I'd heard a little bit about Dogville (hm, just noticed the coincidence there) but not a lot; as with most things I recommend, I'd suggest going in knowing as little as possible, so if you're planning to see it and don't know anything more about it than what I've already told you, please stop here.
I had heard a bit about the sets, or lack thereof. Dogville takes place on a large blueprint, about the size of a small schoolyard. Buildings consist of white outlines with the building's name stenciled inside and perhaps a piece or two of (real) furniture. It's the sort of thing plays do all the time, trying to turn the limitations of the stage into an advantage. Here the artifice is self-imposed and has two main effects. One, it establishes that we're in Allegory Land; and two, well, imagine the possibilities when you can see everything that's happening at once, both inside and outside every structure in town, but the inhabitants can't.
I'd heard it was set in a poor town in Colorado in the early 20th century. I'd heard it had Nicole Kidman in it. I hadn't heard that it tortured her character in heart-shredding fashion. And here I'd thought Requiem for a Dream was nasty. Now, this by itself would be enough to make for a substantial film: the arc seemed fairly simple — mystery woman is first embraced by a rural community which then turns on her — but fleshed out with the chalk-outline gimmick, the great ensemble acting and the genuine emotion evoked by the story, it certainly had more going for it than most movies. But all that turns out to be a playing piece in something still greater.
See, at the end our heroine, raped by half the populace and literally enslaved by them all, finds herself with the power to decide their fates... and we find ourselves in the middle of a philosophical discussion of one of the Big Issues: to what extent is human evil determined by heredity and environment, and to what extent can we nevertheless assign responsibility to evildoers... and when the Kidman character talks about forgiveness, we can't dismiss it (within the world of the story anyway) as squishy liberal coddling of criminals, because having been through what she's been through she has the moral weight to make the call.
So many narratives are built around satisfying revenge. Hell, the entire Middle East seems built around the notion. Dogville would stick with me if only for the way it punctures this notion (and while I'm not normally one to speak aloud to inanimate screens, Kidman's character has a line that had me saying "OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD." to an empty house). That it comes on top of what would already be an epic work is really something. There are movies that have made me think, "Wow, I'm really loving this." Dogville isn't one of those. I don't even know that I'd want to watch it again. Not anytime soon, anyway. But it did make me think, "Wow, I'm watching a great film." Or at least a great play.