The film, Dogville, illustrates this quandary of value in stark detail. A stranger comes to Dogville, a tiny town in the Colorado Rockies during the Great Depression. Perhaps the first thing that is so extraordinary in this film, is that it is a woman not a man. Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, arrives after shots are heard from below. She doesn’t reveal her history. There is a desperation about her; she will agree to do or be anything for anyone. She is a supplicant—boundlessly submissive, demure, and deferential. She is withdrawn, her gestures limited and constrained. Kidman infuses a sweetness to her tone. She hesitates before responding, as though unsure of herself, seeking to make of herself whatever the people of Dogville want her to be; she contorts and conforms. You see her relating to the full-bodied, almost bossy townswoman, to the scornful fire-and-brimstone priest who has a kind of crusader quality to him. She interacts with the town’s children, who have an entitled quality to them. She submits in each and every encounter. You watch her become the shape of their gaze.
The sets are sparse, stagy, theatrical—a Beckett set with characters moving through the minimal props. There is nothing to distract from the bleakness of the human interactions and the slowly unfolding story, as Kidman brilliantly embodies every woman entering a new situation, becoming so fluidly what she determines everyone wants her to be. As viewers, we so want to deny that this is what’s happening in everyday life, a thing we so often feel—the way we bend and contort and so want to please. Watching Kidman is like watching the modern woman’s life, broken out and illuminated; having never learned the value of her own personhood, she spends her life chasing a feeling that she can never give enough of herself to receive, until she hits rock bottom. Without squinting, I think every woman can see herself in Kidman, in the sexual encounters with the village men and in her interactions with the children to whom she plays nanny. She and the priest have the prototypical relationship with her in the role that a woman is both exalted and permitted in, which is subservience. She’s willing to indiscriminately receive the projection of the man’s shadow. As a woman, I’m told to be totally subservient, and I’m subservient in my sexual liaison with the priest, who is considered the model of the pinnacle of integrity and nobility—a man who we’re told is safe to be totally subservient to. So we open into total subservience in order to have increasing hatred and condemnation in what he sees in himself projected onto us. And women, since the beginning of time, have absorbed that from men.
What’s fascinating about Dogville is how accurately it depicts the rapacious nature of that hunger. She can’t get small enough. She can’t get subservient enough. And every woman thinks, “If I continue to get smaller and more subservient, then it will eventually (how could it not?) turn.” This is a noble man. What human being could continue to have this much hatred? All we understand is that I got smaller, more subservient, more withdrawn, more accommodating to receive his shadow and hatred, and that makes me a loving woman. And to say no makes me disobedient, difficult, crooked. That is every woman’s fear. That she becomes a difficult woman. What we women don’t understand is that holding the boundary of our identity—our clear no—allows a man to relax.
The children represent the part of us that knows all of us are faking it. The children call her out for performative obedience. The mother represents all women who keep women in line, there’s a pecking order that the less sexual, the less powerful you are the more authority you’re allowed to have. She tries to get increasingly demure. Then—and this is the most spellbinding aspect of the movie—her father shows up. Her father is a mafia boss. This is the communication of the warning to all women that confirms what she internally knows and fears: if I allow myself to relinquish all control in the slightest bit, if I unleash my desire at all, I will eat everything. That is the pendulum swing. We all know that deprivation creates gluttony.
So her father shows up, and we realize she’s been running from him. When she gets in the car, we see that quality in women that wants to bypass having to build boundaries, having to hold men to a standard. We want men to intuitively know how to be good to us, so that we don’t have to demonstrate this power, this strength. So year after year, with a male transgressor, when we giggle and say yes, and he does what he has done so many times before, we are shocked that he doesn’t know not to do that. Nobody ever said don’t. In fact, they gave him sex to do that. They give him massive reinforcement to do that. They aren’t saying, I trained him to be a transgressor. This is where women balk. Grace gets in the car and we see both her hatred and relief at seeing him. He represents the daemonic energy in her. He says he will kill them all. She thinks he is evil because he kills people. But he says he doesn’t pretend to be something other than what he is. I love this because everything is clean. These are the rules of the daemonic. It doesn’t pretend. You are clear where you stand.
He has the best line in the history of any movie, telling her that she is arrogant in her asking less of other people than she asks of herself. That is the line for every woman because as women we hold selflessness as an exalted quality, but this is a deep demonstration of our arrogance. We think we are above having to interact with the everyday laws of the world, where you hold a boundary, where you ensure that things are fair. What women are really doing is buying their innocence on credit, concealing the rage until the bill comes. They’re buying their ability to be accommodating or sweet, and they’re not paying for it in real time and then it comes out as rage, outrage, and contempt. The contempt is a direct result of not paying in real time by not saying the truth moment to moment.
She gets out of the car. He asks, “Would they do the same for you?” She looks out at the town and she says, “No, no they wouldn’t.” Then she gets back in the car and says, “
Kill them all.”
By the time we’re willing to have our power, rage, primal self integrated in us, it often manifests only out of reaction and contempt.