in Profiles | 01 JAN 99
Featured in
Issue 44

Fool's Rules

Four Danish directors and their Dogma 95 manifesto

in Profiles | 01 JAN 99

Four years ago, a group of Danish directors decided it was time to call a halt to the excess of Hollywood film production. The profusion of options offered by huge budgets and digital special effects was too much for Lars von Trier, Kristian Levring, Thomas Vinterberg and Søren Kragh-Jakobsen: it was manifesto time. Through the ten commandments of Dogma 95, the directors proposed constraints designed to strip film of the superficial, and to allow the medium's strengths to emerge. In its essence, Dogma 95 demands:

1. Shooting must take place on location. No props or sets may be used.

2. The soundtrack must not be produced independently of the images.

3. A hand-held camera must be used.

4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable.

5. Optical effects and filters are forbidden.

6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons etc.).

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. The film must take place in the here and now.

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

10. The director must not be credited.

While these ten commandments sound pretty business-like, the arguments made in support of them in the accompanying policy statement make this one of the most highly-strung manifestos since Marinetti's. The directors fight 'decadence', 'bourgeois romanticism' and 'illusions of pathos and illusions of love' with 'truth', 'indisputability' and other terrifying weapons of the avant-garde. By taking the vow, the four directors claim to have given up personal taste, and consequently their identities as individual artists. The cinematic crusaders hope to succeed where the 60s New Wave became merely 'a ripple that washed ashore and turned to muck'. Yet the Dogma brothers took the vow on April 1st and Vinterberg has already confessed to violation of several commandments; the signs are that in the late 90s, a manifesto is to be be taken with a pinch of salt.

The spring of 1998 saw the first two films produced under the Dogma rules - Vinterberg's The Celebration and von Trier's The Idiots. Taking place during a 60th birthday party, The Celebration (which was awarded the jury prize in Cannes), deals with the claustrophobia of the family get-together. In front of the entire party, the birthday boy's son ceremoniously reveals a major family secret. The patriarchal authority of the father collapses, and the celebration turns to hysteria as the drama unfolds. Everyone gets out alive, though, and for all its psychological economy, The Celebration is exceedingly well-played and intensely narrated. The question is whether the Dogma rules are inherent to the drama of the film, or whether they act merely as formal guidelines that add to its home-made atmosphere. One's suspicion is that The Celebration could have been made without adhering to the Dogma rules and achieved a similar effect.

The Idiots portrays a group of people positively committed to idiocy. Based in a big house in Copenhagen's stockbroker belt, they 'spaz out', or behave like spastics, resulting in a thoroughly awkward, if grotesquely humorous social parody. There's nothing special about idiocy: anyone can put it on, except, of course the disabled. (In one scene, von Trier stages a meeting between the group and a busload of people with genuine Down's Syndrome, respectfully referred to as 'the pros'.) Idiocy is used by the group as a way of holding everything up for ridicule, as well as using society's nervous treatment of the handicapped as a way of creating an audience for oneself. But exactly what it promises for the group remains unclear, as over-identification with their role begins to surface among its members and they indulge in moronic group sex replete with screen-wide penetration (don't those porno stand-ins break the rules?).

Through a discussion of social experimentation, The Idiots pokes fun at ideas of 'normality' as well as of revolutionary utopianism and therapeutic role-play. Always one to site extremes in disconcerting proximity, in The Idiots von Trier juxtaposes a sensitive humanism with an all-out, iconoclastic sarcasm, and the resulting hysteria seems to make the Dogma rules work in the way they may have been intended - to bring the movie closer to the viewer.