PRINT November 1998


Dogma 95

THREE YEARS BACK, under the aegis of a radical (and largely spurious) Danish filmmaking collective calling itself Dogma 95, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg issued a directorial manifesto in the daft form of a “Vow of Chastity.” (Later, Christian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen signed on, effectively doubling Dogma’s membership.) Set forth in ten severe back-to-naturalism commandments, coupled with additional proclamations like “I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste!,” the vows’ monastic regimen is now put to the test in a pair of new movies (both of which premiered this year at Cannes): Vinterberg’s Dogma 1: The Celebration and von Trier’s Dogma 2: The Idiots. Each displays a thoughtfully ambivalent misanthropy and miserly economy of means, though neither is remotely chaste in attitude. The Celebration, which opened last month in New York and LA, digs up the skeletons in a wealthy family’s closet with all the tact of a tabloid show (welcome to “Denmark’s Ghastliest Home Videos”). An acute eye prying for sacred monsters and festering wounds, Vinterberg’s lens refracts blood ties as sadomasochism. Meanwhile, The Idiots (also from October Films and due to be released next spring) plunges into more scattered, uncharted terrain—the antisocial space occupied by a band of troublemakers who impersonate the retarded. A fragile, damaged woman gets sucked into their ragtag commune, and her life is either saved or destroyed (perhaps both) as a result.

A profile of von Trier aired on TV recently, and in it he talked about Dogma 95’s curious manifesto (that document, it should be noted, marks the fourth different aesthetic declaration von Trier has authored or instigated since 1981). Scarcely able to keep a straight face, he wore the agreeable smile of a well-medicated mental patient—or else the cat who had swallowed the canard. At forty-two, riding the crest of his art-house success with Breaking the Waves and known for a headstrong verve recalling Orson Welles at his most prodigious, von Trier acted more like a refugee from The Idiots than an internationally renowned director. Chuckling about directing the film in the nude and maintaining that every day the entire cast cried, he appeared to be sending up the whole movie-making process from conception to postproduction promo interview. In his own (Andy) Kaufman-esque fashion, our lovable Lars was being helpfully candid, explaining the rules even while conspiring to mock them.

Von Trier insists that the Vow of Chastity’s flesh-scourging injunctions (all shooting is to be done on location without additional props or sets, using a hand-held camera, live sound, etc.) are more or less arbitrary; the important thing is to set self-imposed limitations as a way to stimulate the imagination by forcing it to work around obstacles. “The Dogma rules are very much made for me,” von Trier confesses, and they are intended to make the director “give away control,” Thus the manifesto doubles as a control freak’s twelve-step (minus two) program. First describing the commandments as “Some orders to myself, like in hypnotism, “Don’t use artificial light,’” von Trier paused a beat before dropping the other shoe. “But then again, if you can’t control it all, what’s the point?”

What indeed. From the dystopian noir of Element of Crime (1984, aptly) to the stunning meta-cinema of 1991’s Zentropa (Hitchcockian devices mordantly wed to Our Hitler–like evocations of the romance-trance of movies and fascism), von Trier’s work masterfully explored the possibilities of artifice. His earlier films largely rejected a Danish identity for a polyglot, polysemous one, while spoilsport critics carped about their rootless cosmopolitanism. Breaking the Waves featured a dour Scandinavian sensibility gone Pop, its demented ventriloquism owing as much to Edgar Bergen as Ingmar Bergman: here, the director seemed a perversely affectionate puppet master and God an inventively cruel auteur. In view of von Trier’s past vanities and excesses, one can see how he might feel the need to atone, to make a clean break lest he wind up a nut-job self-caricature like the megalomaniacal director in The Stunt Man (Richard Rush’s crypto-parodistic sleight-of-hand film [1978/80], which might be the unacknowledged source of von Trier’s delusion-and-reality brinkmanship).

“The director must not be credited,” the tenth Dogma commandment enjoins, which is too bad for Thomas Vinterberg, since The Celebration looks more like a von Trier film than The Idiots. Meant to “force the truth out of . . . characters and settings,” the strict Dogma framework proved weirdly liberating for Vinterberg: “There was a great lightness of feeling [during the shoot]. We could romp to our heart’s content.” That’s apparent in the film, shot like a series of guerrilla home movies so painfully intimate that material winds up framed with blank, surveillance-cam detachment. Peppered with gothic family secrets. Godfather allusions, and an Ophelia ghost for good measure, Vinterberg’s film has the poised, nervous energy of early Godard and Fassbinder, but with a different kind of stylization altogether: one whose revisionist tendencies cross-pollinate the found antiart of reality TV with the awkwardness-cum-“bad taste” of daytime soap operas and the cramped, prowling mise-en-scène of shot-on-video pornography.

Vinterberg (with only one previous film to his credit) absorbed more than just von Trier’s free-wheeling camera moves and staccato, helter-skelter edits; he has also adopted his mentor’s unstable, omnisatirical point of view, which abstains from telling the audience how to react to what he shows them. The Celebration uses that impish, ambiguous quality to sinister comic effect, tossing preconceived reactions back in our faces. Vinterberg’s seamless ensemble never simply caught behaving as impulsively (or guardedly) as the moment dictates. The Idiots takes the Vow of Chastity’s notion of “the instant as more important than the whole” to even starker, more disconcerting extremes. With its unadorned, public-TV-documentary look and deliberately murky psychology, The Idiots successfully effaces—or at least defaces—von Trier’s trademark tics. The troupe of scam-artists who give the film its name may be seen as surrogates for the posing-as-inconspicuous auteur who created them. “Spazzing” it up, eliciting hypocritical reactions, hustling guilty donations, and generally fucking with the heads of anyone who pays them heed, they might be reenacting a loopy, mummer’s version of Breaking the Waves. (For its American release, black boxes have been superimposed on the frequent frontal nudity and odd bits of explicit sex, needlessly upping the absurdity quotient.) But The Idiots’ encounter-group antics haven’t got the same safety net of redeeming aesthetic significance to fall back on. With their blurry role-playing and displacing reversals of perspective (are they pretending to be what they’re not or what they fear they might really be?), von Trier’s scraggly bunch of sadist-idealists are like slacker descendants of the Baader-Meinhof gang: emotional terrorists, yet oddly affecting ones. At last the real Dogma 95 program emerges as catharsis interruptus—a leap into an ice-water void that proffers its own shock-to-the-system release.

Howard Hampton writes frequently on film for Artforum.