"Life is one long turd that you have to take a huge bite of every day." So runs a bit of wisdom from an older sibling to her younger in the Dogme 95 movie Mifune (1999). Now that the panel of filmmakers which certified Dogme 95 films (the Dogme Secretariat) has officially disbanded, it may be time to examine the movement’s output to discover just what we’ve been swallowing all along.
Head Dogme mascot and provocateur Lars Von Trier threw down the Dogme 95 gauntlet at a symposium in Paris over eight years ago, launching perhaps the most significant film movement since the French New Wave. The manifesto’s authors (directors Von Trier and Vinterberg) even specifically referenced what they called the failure of the New Wave in their manifesto, claiming that "the anti-bourgeois cinema itself became bourgeois," primarily because it adopted a bourgeois perception of art—namely, the concept of the film director as sole auteur. To counter "the film of illusion" and focus more keenly on the inner lives of film characters, the Dogme 95 manifesto proposed the Vow of Chastity, a set of 10 rules.
Von Trier released three films between 1995 and 2002, when the Dogme Secretariat dissolved: Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), and Dancer in the Dark (2000), which constituted the Golden Heart Trilogy. Interestingly, the only official Dogme 95 film of the three is The Idiots, though the other two can well be seen as proto-Dogme 95 films, in which Von Trier may not adhere to the Vow of Chastity but still pursues the spirit of the manifesto’s anti-auteur and anti-illusion stance.
Enormously thoughtful and thought-provoking, Von Trier’s films lay bare our sacred illusions about cinema. In Breaking the Waves, he juxtaposes surreal, color-saturated, music-accompanied stills against narrative sections featuring raw documentary-style cinematography and stark soundscapes to underscore just the kind of trumped-up illusion he generally spurns. The Idiots’s characters literally espouse (or, better yet, espazz) an anarchist dogma-type theory, unearthing their inner idiots as they rebel against the illusions bred by bourgeois society’s overly civil comportment.
But Von Trier most effectively deconstructs cinematic illusion in the final installment of his trilogy. He takes on the musical, a genre of film at the pinnacle of irreality, and uses both our learned dramatic expectations and the inexplicable seduction of the musical against us. Characters burst into song in incongruous places—factories, murder scenes, trial courts, cell blocks—at inopportune times, rendering hollow the normally cheery notes of the musical: Selma may sing, "It’s a musical and there’s always someone to catch me," but Von Trier refuses to buckle to such a conceit, wagging his auteur’s admonishing finger as police officers enter the room to arrest her for murder.
Von Trier illustrates his point with undeniable (if heavy-handed) clarity in the final scene of Dancer. Strapped to a board waiting to be hung, Selma belts out her final number; in medias res the trapdoor drops out and she’s cut short. When the camera pans down to the level below and frames the "stage" the execution spectators see, the curtains part to reveal Selma hanging in the right-hand corner. A lamb to Von Trier’s didactic slaughter, Selma dangles like an empty effigy, killed off in service of his larger cause: his cinematic critique.
Although Von Trier’s proto-Dogme 95 trilogy very successfully takes on the illusions and predictability typified by mainstream cinema, the films themselves are ultimately bogged down by his polemics. His female characters may be driven and dedicated, possessed of a strength stemming from a single-minded resolve, but they are also essentially one-sided, and, well, dumb—iconic marionettes whom we can pity more than relish or identify with in any meaningful way. Ironically, Von Trier’s unflagging critique of didacticism results in the stamping of his auteur imprimatur on every frame of his films, subverting the "I" of his characters to his own "I."
Less concerned with communicating their personal dogma than with utilizing the manifesto to attain a simpler, more rigorous style of filmmaking, it is the non-Lars Von Triers who validate the Dogme 95’s artistic worth. Whereas Von Trier’s characters are martyrs of melodramas, other Dogme 95 filmmakers employ the Vow of Chastity’s raw asceticism to mine their characters’ humanity and extract extremely accomplished films from narratives that seem incredibly soap-operatic at first blush.
Vinterberg’s The Celebration elegantly incorporates enough backstory through ingenious bits of dialogue and found objects to elucidate the characters’ complicated inner lives, delving sensitively into each individual’s perspective with an even hand despite the morally volatile subject matter. Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s incredibly bizarre film, Mifune, similarly avoids predictability, swinging from grim nihilism to slapstick physical comedy and acts of self-hatred to heartwarming romance. Though the film holds together a bit like a ramshackle oddity, much of the characters’ motivations, actions, and dialogue—both tender and cruel—ring surprisingly true.
More recent landmarks are 2000’s Italian for Beginners and 2002’s Open Hearts, both excellent intimate ensemble cast pieces, demonstrating that Dogme 95 is still alive and kicking and worthwhile in the new millennium.
The unnumbered, 11th rule of the dogma manifesto states, "I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a ‘work’, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole." Von Trier religiously adhered to this oath when crafting the pseudo-documentary mishmash The Idiots, but other Dogme adherents have tacitly ignored this last part of the manifesto—and rightly so. The phrase isn’t "making art" for nothing. Films generally are (and should be) made with an aesthetic end in mind. Otherwise why go to the movies? Just use a webcam if you want truly artless, uncontrived film. Certainly filmmakers can strive to strip down excess illusion—always a noble and budgetarily democratic goal—but the essential fact and necessity of illusion remains.
The best of Dogme 95 films—and of all films, really—create an illusion that retells reality more cohesively than we experience it each day, revealing nuances and perspectives in the playback that we may not have noticed before. They cast our own illusions in relief in a way that is enlightening but not didactic. Witness this snippet of dialogue between two sisters from Italian for Beginners:
Olympia: What do you want for Christmas?
Karen: This salon. Then I’d be the boss… No… I’d be happy with a scarf… What do you want?
Olympia: A husband, and a house, and not to go out to work… or those long earrings we saw at the shopping center.
But, then again, who says you can’t teach an old dogmatic new tricks? With his upcoming film Dogville to be released this fall, Von Trier says he’s "experimenting with a new dogma formula." Nicole Kidman’s kerchief-wrapped head in the press stills (connoting Selma’s in Dancer in the Dark) doesn’t necessarily bode well for drastic costuming changes, but when the curtain goes up, you can bet I’ll be there—curious to see if he’s breaking new analytical ground or just, er, marking the same old territory.