A couple of weeks ago I treated myself to what has to be the weirdest double feature I could have concocted: Lars von Trier’s Dogville and Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. Wright’s social-politics-as-balletic-performances take on Tolstoy’s novel is obviously in a different realm from von Trier’s claustrophobic and caustic exploration of American values. Wright’s film struck a note with me (as it is, a Wright film may top my Top 10 for two years in a row) while von Trier’s is a (deservedly) harder sit, though the strength of both casts really helps sell the high-concept nature of both films.
At the center of both films though, is a woman in the middle of a stage (at times figural, in both cases literal) seeing her own life slip away from herself to the eyes of those around her. While von Trier keeps his theater-playing space to a bare minimum, Wright really amps up the “world’s a stage” conceit and relishes the theatricality that said metaphor provides him. Yet in both cases, these choices serve to not only bring Kidman’s Grace and Knightley’s Anna center stage as it were, but to draw attention to the very thing that makes theater so distinct to cinema: the presence of the performer’s body.
Grace’s body — subject to all kinds of torture and mistreatment — is further underlined by von Trier’s decision to create a Brechtian play-space to stand-in and for Dogville the town. The body on stage, unencumbered by the trappings of movie sets (or walls even), is here at the mercy of everyone’s eyes not least our own. Grace quite quickly becomes merely a body to be moved and fucked around. The immediacy of the minimalist staging makes the whole thing that much more unbearable not to mention universal even in its specificity. Here, the stage-as-parable framework depends on it being definitely tied to the very immediacy and urgency of the bodies of the residents of Dogville.
Wright’s film tends instead to highlight Anna’s very immediacy in a different way. For a character that so pines when being distanced from her lover, Anna’s presence on a stage serves to not only highlight the fish-bowl milieu of 19th century Russian society, but to underscore the way she finds her love for Vronsky to be what anchors her in her own body. The theatricality and production design amp up the performative nature of all social roles but Wright’s theater forces us to see Anna as a body up for the taking; her love of Vronsky is visceral, immediate and — spoiler alert — suicidal. Without it she is nothing. It is not surprising that in a key scene toward the end, her costume presents her as a rigid structure lay bare with no dress to cover herself.
I don’t think it’s a surprise that in both cases the character at the heart of the “staged” film is a woman; after all, we’ve been indoctrinated to think of women being tied to their bodies in ways that men aren’t (or so go the gender-restricting roles that grant women physicality while men take abstraction). What’s interesting is that in both cases the conceit works to bring out larger questions about how women are at once role-players but also perpetually offered up to a viewing public which circumscribes (and judges) their actions. Needless to say, von Trier is no Tolstoy so his Grace does not quite end up on the tracks, but rather manages to avenge her own mistreatment once she’s dropped her victim(ized) performance.