Film & TV

Movie Musings… Dogme 95

The rise of the blockbuster and its high-impact style of storytelling came to a natural conclusion in 1995, when four young Danish directors founded the Dogme 95 Collective. The most prominent of these was the highly controversial part-provocateur, part-pornographer Lars von Trier. The group operated within the confines of a list of ten rules termed ‘the vows of chastity’, which laid out a system of filmmaking that aimed to return the cinematic art to its core values of acting, cinematography and storytelling, whose clear waters had been muddied by post-production trickery and special effects bombast. It was a noble pursuit, and indeed in a year where the head-scratching Batman Forever and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls made the box office top five it is clear that the art of cinema had gone somewhat astray.

The films it produced were confrontational yet thoughtful, and in tone did indeed return to the cinematic heydays they aimed to emulate. The first film produced under the vow was the critically acclaimed Festen (1998), a drama set at the birthday party of a 60 year old man shot, in accordance with the law of chastity, with naturalistic performances and minimalist direction. Tellingly it was a much more visceral and emotionally grounded film than was produced in the mainstream.

“The films produced were confrontational yet thoughtful”

Trier’s own The Idiots (1998) was the second Dogme film and was also critically lauded, and ground-breaking for its complete reliance on digital cameras, but introduced a common and unwritten rule of the movement: controversy. The sex in the film was unsimulated; hardly a surprise since von Trier’s company Zentropa also makes adult movies, but it caused much uproar amongst the critical elite. Perhaps more dubious was the film’s central premise; the titular ‘idiots’ being a group of friends who behaved as if they were disabled in public. At the film’s Cannes premiere film critic Mark Kermode shouted “Il est merde!” (and was promptly ejected for his troubles).

The contention was that, in search of a return to cinematic values, the films were losing sight of moral ones; without CGI monsters to grab the eye of the audience the Dogme movement attracted attention by other means, often sex. A look through their filmography does see a tiring over-reliance on the subject, be it molestation in Festen or the plot of the travesty Fuckland (2000), which sees the Argentinian lead try to win back the Falklands by impregnating its female population. What difference do production values make when the films are so poor? This was the question asked by the viewing audience and Dogme had no answer, ending in 2005 when its figurehead Lars von Trier disassociated from the movement.

“In search of a return to cinematic values the films were losing sight of moral ones”

The lasting influence of Dogme 95 then may not be the 37 films made in its name but the filmmakers who heard their (sometimes desperate) cry for change and answered. While blockbusters may be more ubiquitous and often more shameless than ever, the work of directors like Richard Linklater – of Boyhood (2014) and the Before Trilogy (1995-2013) fame – certainly reflect the ten aspired values, as does the work of the French Dardenne brothers whose Two Days One Night was one of 2014’s best, and seems to suggest that those four Dogme founders were onto something after all. It certainly turned out a lot better than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014).

Liam Inscoe Jones

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