Nicole Kidman: The Portrait of a Lady | Eyes Wide Shut | Dogville

Film Actresses & Global Classics

 

In this series I offer my reflections on actresses and their most compelling performances in (mostly) classics of global cinema.

NICOLE KIDMAN: PORTRAIT OF A LADY, EYES WIDE SHUT, DOGVILLE

Nicole Kidman by Mario Testino (detail) 2002

Nicole Kidman by Mario Testino (detail) 2002

INTRODUCTION

Nicole Kidman by Peter Lindbergh (detail) 2016

Of the film actresses working today in the English-speaking world, Nicole Kidman is, in my view, the finest. In this post I will consider her performance in The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996), Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) and Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003). Aesthetically, these three films are radically different from each other; the register of Kidman’s acting in each is thus correspondingly different. The period drama of Portrait, aiming to capture the psychological complexity of Henry James’ realism, makes one set of demands on the actress; the postmodern staging of a duel at the intersection of desire, fantasy and the everyday in Eyes Wide Shut makes a different set of demands, while the Brechtian parable of Dogville—at once timeless and contemporary, stylized and ‘natural’—makes still another set. That Nicole Kidman delivers a scintillating performance in each film, that the diverse facets of her acting shine with equal brilliance, points to a primary characteristic of her greatness: her range and versatility, her ability to be not only convincing, but compelling, whatever the mode of acting required.

Like Isabelle Adjani, Nicole Kidman is a thrilling actress: Watching her in these films, we experience a thrill akin to watching a tightrope walker perform without a safety net, a thrill usually generated only in live theatre, not in the recorded medium of cinema with its safety net of multiple takes. This intimation of danger that all great actresses convey is particularly acute in Kidman. She gives us—again as in live theatre but rarely in cinema—not the illusion of a ready-made world, but rather the privileged sense of being present at the creation of a world. The immediacy of her acting makes for an intimacy with us; in the experience of the character she conveys, the attention of our senses is consumed.

Nicole Kidman by Annie Leibovitz (detail, desaturated) Vogue, 17 Aug. 2017

Nicole Kidman, interview on Eyes Wide Shut (bonus DVD), 1999

If, as a ‘superstar’ in commodity culture, Kidman is very much American, in these films d’auteur she draws on her strangerhood, the ‘otherness’ in her experience, that is more European. Just what do I mean? Let me quote Julia Kristeva: ‘Who am I?’ is a question to which the best answer, European, is obviously not certitude, but the love of the question mark.’ It is Kidman’s ‘love of the question mark’ that drew her to these ‘outside’ directors. Indeed, despite being a commodity star, despite her wealth of experience, as an actress she has remained uncorrupted in her feeling. Her attitude is one of humility, a fruitful attitude best described by director Peter Brook (in response to a request for advice for young actors): ‘If you’re just playing an idiot, if you’re playing a witless cretin, that witless cretin is more magnificently witless and more cretinously cretin than you can ever be. If you once recognize this, then there is something you can work on, continually, because you realize that there is a stretch of your body, of your understanding, of your imagination, of your feelings, to find something that is beyond your natural range, and that creates a tension and a friction that in the end can produce discovery’ (Between Two Silences: Talking with Peter Brook, pp.67-68).

Let us now consider how Kidman’s art, how her quest for ‘discovery’, has, despite her being an ‘insider’, served these three ‘outsider’ films.

‘THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY’, JANE CAMPION, 1996

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady

Isabel Archer, the heroine of The Portrait of a Lady, is a young woman of surface elegance and interior turmoil. As a character, she challenges the actress to plumb her depths even as she maintains her surface composure. In accepting this challenge, Nicole Kidman delivers what is for me her finest screen performance. How to describe it? If you allow me a conceit, by analogy with a piece of music: Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet.  If you listen to it, this is what you’ll hear: the shadowy silence of a ghostly waltz, the dactylic rhythm of fortissimo chords; the bright pluck of pizzicato, the brutal lyricism of sustained bass notes; the spectral timbre of high tessitura, a dark cello beneath a singing violin. A distillation of subtleties, by turns elegiac and agitated; a melodic figure that crescendos but remains incomplete. And in the end, an intermingling of beauty and sorrow, a stoic farewell… Yes, if she is to do justice to Henry James’ heroine, this is the quartet the actress is called upon to play: not a solo sonata for violin or piano, but an ensemble of two violins, viola and cello. In playing Isabel Archer, Nicole Kidman not only strikes all the right notes on the four instruments, but voices each in varied rhythms, taking our breath away.

Nicole Kidman, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

Nicole Kidman, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

The challenge in playing Isabel Archer, then, is to simultaneously show the placidity of her surface elegance (what James calls her ‘mask’) and the agitation of her inner turmoil, and to dose each state to the precise degree required by the dramatic moment. As Isabel ‘affronts’ her destiny (as James puts it), the actress has to deploy her body/voice on different fronts at once, using, as it were, counterpoint and dissonance to disrupt the surface melody (hence my metaphorical quartet). More than most roles, Isabel Archer requires the actress to constantly play both horizontally (melody, counterpoint) and vertically (harmony, dissonance). Jane Campion’s close-ups of Nicole Kidman’s face allow us to appreciate how brilliantly the actress achieves this objective. Even in long shot, corseted in her flowing gowns, Kidman conveys Isabel’s ambivalence, her state of permanent tension. Thanks to the cine-camera, we can measure the weight of a tear drop, gauge the heave of a suppressed sigh. The semiotics of Portrait of a Lady abounds in such signs: all the more amazing, then, that Kidman ‘carries’ the entire film using, for the most part, only such subtleties.

Isabel Archer fervently wants to be happy, yet, unbeknownst to her, she has armed herself against that possibility. All her troubles stem from this self-sabotage. She refuses the love of Caspar Goodwood because she’s afraid of how his erotic power might arouse hers; she refuses Lord Warburton’s hand in marriage because accepting it would interfere with her plans for ‘getting a general impression of life’ first. She’s in love with Ralph Touchett but ends up marrying Gilbert Osmond, a ‘sterile dilettante’, instead (only with Ralph on his deathbed does she realize this). And that is when she arrives at a self-understanding that, we presume, will free her from her self-sabotage. The film ends with Isabel on a threshold. Of happiness? Jane Campion, like Henry James, opts for the ‘love of the question mark’ (Europe) over any answer (America).

Nicole Kidman, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

Nicole Kidman & Viggo Mortensen, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

Isabel’s problem can be simply stated: she’s afraid of the dark. The darkness inside herself. ‘We are only alive because we desire, and yet in our desiring we are obscure to ourselves’ (Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery [London: Faber & Faber, 1999, p. 107]). Indeed, Isabel is afraid of what she might find if she descends into the depths of her heart. She’s afraid it might shatter her armour. And so, doggedly pursuing happiness, she remains immune to surprise—and so remains unhappy. Indeed, unable to risk spontaneity, she deprives herself of any opportunity to discover that happiness only occurs by enchantment. She entertains the fantasy of knowing what she wants, but ‘knowing what one wants is a form of despair … a form of terrorism of oneself and of others’ (Adam Phillips, Side Effects [London: Penguin Books, 2006, pp. 166/171]). As Ralph advises her: ‘Don’t ask yourself so much whether this or that is good for you. Live as you like best, and your character will take care of itself’. At the end of her journey, at the end of the film, Isabel is ready to assume ‘the unknowingness of desiring’. In other words, she is ready to give herself a chance to discover happiness—not wilfully, but by accident.

The film doesn’t give us sufficient ‘life facts’ for a detailed understanding of Isabel’s psychology: for that we have to read the novel. Yet, for anyone with even an elementary understanding of femininity, we can infer what’s going on behind Isabel’s surface elegance. Her sexual repression is what Jane Campion plays up, but that’s but the tip of the iceberg. Looking more deeply, we see that Mrs. Touchett has provided us with a key fact: Isabel has ‘neither mother nor father’. Now, observing how she responds to Osmond’s seducing her, observing the dynamics of their marriage, it quickly becomes clear that Isabel has opted to marry a ‘father’, a man who wants her to take up the position of a child, who wants to ‘bring her up’, to mould her according to his own precepts. In other words, he wants another Pansy, another daughter, but one over whom his power, unrestrained by the incest taboo, would be absolute.

John Malkovich, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

John Malkovich & Nicole Kidman, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

Why does Isabel fall into the trap? Why does she who so proudly declared ‘It’s not my fate to give up?’ surrender to a tyrant? Precisely because Osmond corresponds to her fantasy of a father, to a primitive ideal of which she is unaware. Had she been willing to enter into a relationship with Goodwood or Warburton, she’d have had a chance to become aware of her fantasy and to loosen its grip on her; instead, by refusing frank relationship, but affirming her proud isolation, she foreclosed this possibility. Osmond, precisely because he does not desire Isabel, is the only man in her life who does not fall under her ‘spell’. All the others, fooled by their own desire, fail to see that her wilful ‘independence’ is but a screen for her fear of making herself vulnerable, that her ‘mystery’ is a cipher for the darkness inside her. If Osmond’s fearless kiss (in the parasol scene) aroused her sexual excitement and broke a barrier, it was but one element in his deciphering of her ‘code’: unlocking it, he locked her into marriage and obtained her money. ‘I can’t escape my fate’, headstrong Isabel, out of touch with her heart, had told Ralph: had she been more in touch with her heart, her marriage with Osmond would not have been her fate.

Why does Isabel fall under the spell of Madame Merle? Why does she say to her, ‘To me, you’re  a vivid image of success’? Again, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that, not having a mother, Isabel is desperate for some positive identification with femininity. This desperation explains why it takes her so long to discover Madame Merle’s duplicity. As for acceptance of maternity, neither Madame Merle nor Mrs. Touchett offer any model: quite the contrary. It is strangely appropriate, then, that Isabel mourns her dead child by caressing a little marble hand: her own mother is a ‘stone’ of impossible mourning inside her. All this helps us understand why Isabel’s repudiation of femininity is so acute, making her relationships with men so problematic and her surrender to Osmond’s authority so cruelly ironic.

Nicole Kidman, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

Nicole Kidman & Martin Donovan, The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion

At the end of the film Isabel is a changed woman. We sense she’s understood that smartness is no substitute for wisdom, that avoiding intimacy only serves to fossilize one’s fears, and that rejecting convention is easier than ridding oneself of inhibition. Nicole Kidman, in enacting this journey—Isabel’s journey from ‘affronting her destiny’ to confronting her demons—deploys with great intelligence and instinctive justesse her body/voice, and in so doing offers us one of the finest performances ever captured on screen.

Nicole Kidman and her mirror reflection: Isabel Archer is ambivalent.

THE MEN IN ISABEL ARCHER’S LIFE: FOUR IMAGES FROM ‘PORTRAIT OF A LADY’

Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan)

Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich)

Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant)

Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen)

Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery

Jane Campion, The Portrait of a Lady, DVD

‘EYES WIDE SHUT’, STANLEY KUBRICK, 1999

Nicole Kidman as Alice Harford, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

As a film about a couple in crisis, the specific genius of Eyes Wide Shut is that it foregoes infidelity in favour of fantasy, adultery in favour of desire, and shows the imaginative forces to be more powerful that the enacted ones. It shares this trait with Godard’s Contempt. (Interesting comparisons could also be made with Zulawski’s Possession, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing.) The wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), though absent from the screen for much of the film, is nevertheless present throughout: It is her sexual fantasy that obsesses her husband, Bill, and provokes his jealousy, pushing him to reveal his inadequacies.

The driver of Eyes Wide Shut: Alice’s fantasy

Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

Alice’s role in the film is to set Bill in motion, literally: He spends most of the movie wandering in search of his own desire, finding it nowhere. For her part, Alice is at home in her femininity and in touch with her desire. Bill’s response to Alice has been as wrong in its way as Paul’s had been to Camille in Godard’s film: Alice certainly feels contempt for Bill (this, I suggest, is what her ravaged, tear-stained face hides after Bill’s ‘confession’). At the end of the film, vaguely aware of how alienated Bill is from his own desire, she proposes an urgent remedy. ‘What’s that?’, Bill asks. Alice’s answer, of course, is ‘Fuck’. Let’s hope, for their sake, it will be a powerful one, for Bill certainly needs to be blasted out of his alienation.

The second shot of Contempt ends with Camille asking Paul, ‘Do you like my mouth, my eyes, my nose, my ears?’. To which he answers: ‘I love you totally, tenderly, tragically’. The second shot of Eyes Wide Shut has Alice asking Bill, ‘How do I look?’. Instead of looking at Alice, Bill examines his own appearance in the mirror and answers, ‘Perfect’. Alice then asks, ‘Is my hair okay?’. Bill responds, ‘It’s great’, to which Alice retorts, ‘You’re not even looking at it’. And thus, with such tiny particulars of conjugal intimacy, a movement which brings a marriage to a crisis is set in train.

Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut

Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

From the perspective of femininity, it’s interesting to note that in both Contempt and Eyes Wide Shut when we first see the wife she is nude, revelling in her sensuality before going on to seek affirmation of it from her husband (see image at the top of this section). From the perspective of dramaturgy, and therefore of the dynamics of the couple, what’s interesting is that, again in both films, it is the man who dominates the surface action but the woman who, on a deeper level, drives the narrative forward, giving it its key inflection points. In Eyes Wide Shut, then, Alice’s key scenes require Nicole Kidman’s acting to generate ‘aftershocks’: the actress meets this demand beautifully. Let’s take a look.

In her first extended scene, Alice flirts on the dance floor with a suave Hungarian seducer, Sandor Szavost. The acting challenge here—besides conveying just the right degree of drunkenness—is twofold: to play ping pong with clichés and yet remain convincing, and to delineate the arc of the sequence. The progression goes like this: first, acceptance of the game; second, performing in the ‘space of play’, suspending now belief now disbelief, coding and decoding the language of push-and-pull, advance and retreat; third, an interlude of reverie, eyes closed in the seducer’s arms; finally, bringing the game to a close with a graceful ‘no-means-no’. In acting this scene, Kidman employs a slow delivery of both word and gesture, and conveys a lively sense of play. She is a worthy partner to her would-be seducer while enacting her own agenda: to conjure romance, to imagine what-if, and to confirm her own sex appeal, all the while being aware that while Sandor is a convenient pretext for fantasy, he is not the one for whom she will infringe the convention of fidelity.

Sky Dumont & Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

‘Now, when she is having her little titties squeezed, do you think she ever has any little fantasies about what handsome Doctor Bill’s dickie might be like?’

In her second extended scene, Alice first confronts Bill with his naïve conception of feminine sexuality and his smug assurance of her fidelity, and then narrates the scenario of her fantasy with the naval officer. Kidman gives a bravura performance in the first segment, and in the second she lets the inherent drama in the situation—her willingness, in fantasy, to abandon husband and child for one night with the man whose glance had set her body on fire—speak for itself. Alice knows that ‘a couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime: sex is often the closest they can get’. She knows that in monogamy the challenge is ‘to keep what is always too available sufficiently illicit to be interesting’ (Adam Phillips, Monogamy). Bill, on the other hand, is a ‘nice guy’ who has sanitized his mind; alienated from his own desire, he can’t imagine Alice’s and so can’t take her where she wants to go. If a fantasy is ‘a little novel that one always carries in one’s pocket and that one can open anywhere without anyone being aware of it—in the train, in a café and, most commonly, in bed’ (my translation from Juan-David Nasio, Le Fantasme: Le plaisir de lire Lacan)—then Bill’s problem is that his ‘little-novel pocket’ is bare. One wonders how Alice could have put up with him for so long. When he tells her, ‘This pot is making you aggressive’ and she responds, ‘No, it’s not the pot, it’s you!’, the perceptive viewer understands that Alice is reproaching Bill for his lack of imagination, for his ‘empty pocket’.

In her third extended scene, Alice tells Bill her erotic dream. What makes this so upsetting for her is the fact that, however shadowy, she is aware that while she still loves her husband, she no longer desires him. This, of course, is a structural dynamic in marriage, and only in a couple in which each individual constantly exercises their imagination, sloughing off their old skin to reveal a new one, can sex in marriage remain erotic. Alice wants to thrash things out with Bill, to use the breakthrough of the evening to provoke a change in him, but he constantly avoids her. She wants to rekindle the remnants of their eroticism—to put themselves through a purifying fire, as it were—but he is incapable of accepting her invitation. Indeed, Kubrick highlights how Bill is a man with a fat wallet and a thin imagination—a ‘hollow man’, an automaton—alienated from his desire and therefore lacking a fantasy of his own. What could be more pathetic than running around at night trying to buy yourself a fantasy while your wife is waiting for you in bed? Troubled by the dream she tells, Alice embraces Bill, takes him unto herself, but even her touch is not enough for him to see that he has been barking up the wrong tree: in vain she offers him her body and the richness of her imagination.

Nicole Kidman & Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

FOUR IMAGES FROM BILL’S PURSUIT OF A FANTASY FOR HIMSELF

Stewart Thorndike, Tom Cruise & Louise Taylor, Eyes Wide Shut

Leelee Sobieski, Eyes Wide Shut

Vinessa Shaw & Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut

Tom Cruise & Abigail Good, Eyes Wide Shut

‘No Daddy, this is not Mommy’: Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

In her final extended scene, Alice finds herself with Bill in, ironically, a space that is the antithesis of play: a mega toyshop in which enchantment is smothered by hyper-consumerism. It doesn’t bode well for the future of the couple, and indeed it quickly becomes clear that Bill hasn’t even begun to understand his experience. When Alice says to him, ‘The important thing is we’re awake now and hopefully for a long time to come’, he responds: ‘Forever’. Again, the disjuncture between where she’s at and where he’s at is striking: he meets her insight with an empty cliché. He fits in so well with his milieu that his individuality—like that of the child’s imagination in the toyshop—is smothered. Far from being awake, he is sleepwalking through life, in contrast to Alice who is vitally alert. She then says, ‘Let’s not use that word, it frightens me’. Bill is perplexed: he has realized his wife is not a Barbie doll, but he just doesn’t know what to do.

She tells him: ‘I do love you and you know there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible?’. He asks, ‘What’s that?’. She answers… Well, you know what she answers. Easy to say, but hard to do in a liberating way. And it is on this image of Alice instructing Bill that Kubrick leaves us: an image of a wife who, unlike her husband, understands that ‘the difference between monogamy and infidelity is the difference between making a promise and being promising’ (Adam Phillips, Monogamy).

Nicole Kidman & Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

Nicole Kidman & Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

Nicole Kidman’s performance in Eyes Wide Shut is remarkable in that, in a film conceived as a complex ‘score’, she avoids all false notes as she plays the feminine ‘melody’ in beautiful counterpoint to the masculine, while conveying without sentimentality the pathos of dissonance aspiring to harmony.

Acting is a collaborative art—actors act ‘off’ each other—and I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention that Tom Cruise’s performance, though in a very different register, is every bit as good as Kidman’s. I conclude, then, by taking my hat off to both Cruise and Kidman: thanks to them, Kubrick was able to realize his dark vision of masculinity, femininity and the couple in the bright land (all those Christmas lights!) of hyper-consumerism.

Nicole Kidman & Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

Alice and the real Bill: an empty mask

Catherine Sauvat, Arthur Schnitzler, Fayard

Adam Phillips, Monogamy, Faber & Faber

Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story, Penguin Classics

‘DOGVILLE’, LARS VON TRIER, 2003

Nicole Kidman as Grace, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Lars von Trier

In the morass of hackneyed filmmaking that clutters global screens, the derring-do of Dogville restores the honour of art, reminding us that without risk vitality is lost, be it in cinema or life itself. By filming on a bare stage, Lars von Trier staked his film on the strength of its writing and the effectiveness of its acting. If Dogville succeeds so brilliantly, then, it is primarily due to the quality of von Trier’s screenplay (praised by, among others, Quentin Tarantino) and to Nicole Kidman’s acting (and that of the whole cast). In considering the work of the actress, we must bear in mind Dogville’s formal specificities. The film is a fable (or parable, if you prefer), and so the premise of psychological veracity implicit in its naturalistic acting is complicated by the artificiality inherent in the fable. In playing Grace, then, Kidman’s challenge was to maintain a constructive tension between naturalness and artificiality: under Lars von Trier’s direction she walks this tightrope brilliantly, displaying in equal measure dexterity and aplomb. Von Trier wrote the film for Kidman, and he says of her performance: ‘I think she’s incredibly good in the film, a real asset. I was asking her to do things in front of the camera that were pretty demanding, and she just did them’ (Trier on von Trier, ed. Stig Björkman. Faber & Faber, 2003; p. 249).

What is the dramatic premise of Dogville? It goes like this. Into the sleepy hamlet of Dogville USA, a stranger appears, preceded by gunshots. Her name is Grace. Turns out she’s a fugitive, on the run from gangsters. Tom, a would-be writer and the town’s resident thinker, is bent on ‘morally rearming’ Dogville. He wants to ‘refresh folks’ memory of what this country has forgotten’, and he wants to do so by ‘illustration’. What ails the town, in his eyes, is that ‘the people of Dogville have a problem with acceptance’. For them to see this, what they really need is ‘something to accept, something tangible, like a gift’. And thus Grace becomes the gift that enables Tom to conduct his exercise in illustration, his social experiment aiming to reveal that the citizens of Dogville have lost the ability to receive.

Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr & Paul Bettany, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Paul Bettany & Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Grace needs a refuge, Dogville needs a lesson and Tom needs an illustration: this is the film’s dramatic premise, the tripartite accord that drives the film forward to the riot of revenge that is its ending. Note that as co-experimenters Tom and Grace are complicit, and so their conversation with each other is far more intimate and frank than is their talk with the rest of the town. This split that separates Grace and Tom from the other people in Dogville poses a second acting challenge for Kidman: she is called upon to collude with ‘insider’ Tom while preserving her status of ‘outsider’—in other words, to walk another tightrope.

In terms of dramaturgy, the gradual escalation of Grace’s abuse at the hands of the citizens of Dogville, culminating in her enslavement and subjection to systematic rape, is psychologically coherent and artistically compelling. More problematic, in the eyes of many, is the ending, where the once-all-forgiving Grace ferociously enacts her vengeance. Lars von Trier himself has said: ‘My biggest problem with the story was trying to explain Grace’s change of attitude at the end. Admittedly the people of Dogville, who have long exploited her, become more and more demanding and cruel, but I still had trouble explaining Grace’s conversion’. And: ‘Grace acts good-heartedly, but she isn’t – and will not be – a ‘gold heart’ figure. She has to possess a capacity for something else. I tried two or three tricks to get it to work, but I don’t know if it does.’ (Trier on von Trier, ed. Stig Björkman. Faber & Faber, 2003; p. 252).

Stellan Skarsgård & Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Nicole Kidman and James Caan, Dogville, Lars von Trier

For me, the ending is very effective; the feast of vengeance works because, consistent with the entire film, it takes place in the register of fable. Those who see the film as a morality play twist themselves into a pretzel trying to account for the ending. Indeed, by what morality can mass murder be justified? None. And yet, if in our heart of hearts we all know that ‘revenge is a great narrower of the mind’, that it ‘excites and oversimplifies in one fell swoop’, that it ‘answers the two essential questions—what has happened? and what is to be done?—with militant certainty’ (Adam Phillips, In Writing: Essays on Literature, Penguin Books 2017), we also know that Grace’s ‘militant certainty’ is not the outcome of a narrowing of the mind and oversimplification. On the contrary, her long dialogue with her father and her solitary walk before making her decision show us how richly she has reflected, how her feelings and thoughts evolved before finally converging on the decision that Dogville must die. Dramatically, this is the most highly-charged moment in the film, and to render it Kidman conveys at once a fierce determination and an existential lassitude: thanks to her performance, it works brilliantly.

It was while listening to a recording of ‘Pirate Jenny’ (Brecht/Weill, The Threepenny Opera) that von Trier decided he wanted to make a film about revenge. What got him going in particular was the line, ‘And they asked me which heads should fall, and the harbour fell quiet as I answered, All!’ (Trier on von Trier, ed. Stig Björkman. Faber & Faber, 2003; p. 244). In the same interview, he goes on to add that he thought ‘the most interesting thing would be to come up with a story where you build up everything leading to the act of vengeance … Women’s vengeance is considerably more interesting to deal with than men’s. It’s more exciting. In some strange way it seems that women are better at embodying and expressing that part of me. The feminine part of me, perhaps! I find it easier to excuse myself and my thoughts if I allow them to be expressed through a woman. If I expressed the same thing through a man, you would only see the brutality and cruelty’ p. 244 and 253-54). Those viewers tempted to see the film as a thesis would do well to bear these remarks in mind. Indeed, art can never be reduced any other discourse, and one can only be thankful that von Trier has such trust in his artistic instincts.

Grace after the destruction of Dogville

Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Watching Dogville, I am struck by how beautifully Kidman maintains Grace’s aura of innocence throughout the film, inflecting it just enough to register experience at the end (all the more impressive as Lars von Trier had the camera harnessed to his body and, while operating it, would speak to the actors, obliging them, as Kidman remarked, ‘to put oneself into a state where one can hear his voice without letting it distract you’ (interview in Le Monde, 21 May 2003). Maintaining this quality of innocence at just the right pitch for every scene is a great challenge, and Kidman’s success in meeting it contributes greatly to making Dogville work so well as a film about the ‘innocent other’, the stranger who enters a community and, by his/her very innocence, disrupts it and shows it its true face. In this, Grace has something in common with the Visitor (the Terence Stamp character) in Pasolini’s Teorema. A comparison with Jesus Christ is equally evident and, were one to pursue it, one would have to address the theme of the scapegoat as developed, in particular, by René Girard. The comparison I’d like to pursue here, however, is that with Billy Budd, the hero of Herman Melville’s 1891 fable, Billy Budd, Sailor.

In Billy Budd, Sailor, the community is the captain and crew of a warship and the ‘other’ is Billy Budd, a sailor of exceptional innocence and beauty. Claggart, a sailor of higher rank than Billy, comes to despise Billy precisely because of what sets him apart: his implicit appeal to what’s best in people, his unselfish concern, alien to calculating egoism. When, before the captain, Claggart falsely accuses Billy of plotting mutiny, Billy can’t get the words out to defend himself (he is prone to stuttering), and ends up throwing a punch that inadvertently kills Claggart. The captain calls a summary trial, Billy is found guilty of the murder of a superior, and is promptly hanged. It is my contention, then, that the two fables, Billy Budd, Sailor and Dogville, make the same point: the immaculate hero or heroine, no less than the vile villain, bears the mark of Cain. Good-hearted Grace, the ‘beautiful fugitive’, is a cousin of Billy Budd, the handsome sailor of unselfish concern.

Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Hannah Arendt in her book, On Revolution, asserts that we can learn from the poets that ‘absolute goodness is hardly any less dangerous than absolute evil, that it does not consist in selflessness’. If Melville and von Trier both make this point, the difference is that Melville confronts absolute goodness, goodness beyond virtue (Billy Budd) with absolute evil, evil beyond vice (Claggart) whereas von Trier, while leaving open the possibility that Grace’s goodness is absolute, ‘complicates’ it with the argument, advanced by her gangster-boss father, that it is in fact extreme arrogance. If some will have felt this all along, it is only at the end of the film that it is voiced, with Grace’s father saying, for example, ‘You have this preconceived notion that nobody can possibly attain the same high ethical standards as you, so you exonerate them. I cannot think of anything more arrogant than that. You, my child, my dear child, you forgive others with excuses that you would never in the world permit for yourself’. Kidman, here, has to show via her body/voice the struggle taking place in her mind. As the entire scene is filmed entirely in close-ups, she uses her face to portray the growing doubt about her own convictions, her advances and retreats in the battle with her conscience.

There is no Claggart figure in Dogville. The film shows how the citizens bond together in both evil and good. Nevertheless, it casts a cold eye on how these ‘good citizens’ self-righteously go down the slippery slope we recognize as ‘the banality of evil’, the group dynamics that lead them to enslave and dehumanize Grace. Thus, all the men who rape Grace keep a clean conscience because, as the narrator puts it, ‘since the chain had been attached things had become easier for everyone. The harassments in bed did not have to be kept so secret anymore, because they couldn’t really be compared to a sexual act. They were embarrassing in the way it is when a hillbilly has his way with a cow, but no more than that’.

Ben Gazzara & Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Von Trier does not only highlight collective responsibility, however; he also uses his gift for irony to show individual responsibility. Take Chuck’s wife, for example, of whom the narrator says, ‘Now that Vera had received proof that it was in fact Chuck who’d forced his attentions on Grace, she was meaner than ever’. Kidman, in playing the understanding victim of the citizens’ vileness, again has to walk a tightrope, this time one with the viewers’ pity for her suffering on one side and their contempt for her passivity on the other. Again, she walks this high wire with dexterity and aplomb, leading us to question our changing responses to Grace and thereby fulfill the Brechtian ideal of spectators at once emotionally engaged and intellectually aware.

Nicole Kidman, because of her vast range and versatility and the radiance of her feu sacré, is, as I’ve said, the finest actress, in my view, in English-language cinema today. The three films I’ve discussed in this essay all draw fully on her talent. My fervent wish now is that she make more films that are worthy of her, for to date (August 2018) there are pitifully few in her filmography.

Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Lars von Trier

FOUR CITIZENS OF DOGVILLE

Patricia Clarkson as Vera, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Jeremy Davies as Bill Henson, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Chloë Sevigny as Liz, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Željko Ivanek as Ben, Dogville, Lars von Trier

Nicole Kidman, Dogville, Lars von Trier

René Girard, The Scapegoat, JHU Press

Trier on von Trier, Faber & Faber, 2003

Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, Penguin Classics

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2018 | All rights reserved