Released almost simultaneously with a BFI Classics book about Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots, the BFI has just put out a compilation of essays on the Dogma 95, of which the Idiots is perhaps the ultimate synthesis. Edited by Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie, the volume dissects every possible theory about the Dogma movement, while also serving up generous insights, of varying degrees of quality, into Von Trier and New Danish Cinema.
Mette Hjort contributes with the opening article, entitled A Small Nation’s Response to Globalisation which, as the title says, reflects on the movement as Denmark’s reaction to overblown, overexpensive Hollywood extravagance. ‘Dogma 95 has to do in large measure with a realisation that marginality of various kinds need not be synonymous with the impossibility of participation’, she argues.
Scott MacKenzie states in his article ‘Dogma 95 and the Future of the Film Manifesto’ that Dogma differs from previous manifesto movements because of its international appeal and sense of irony, which, it must be added, is not its finest attribute. Harmony Korine’s statement that he tried to impregnate Chloe Sevigny for his Dogma-inspired film Julien Donkey Boy is a good example of this rather juvenile, tried-and-tested form of ‘irreverence’.
Next is Peter Schepelern’s article on Von Trier, ‘Kill Your Darlings’. Von Trier, the star of the book as a whole, is credited as the father of Dogma 95 and this chapter provides good insight into the director’s prolific body of work. Meanwhile, Bondebjerg’s ‘Dogma 95 and the New Danish Cinema’ contextualises the moment within the country where it was born in an informative and original way.
Berys Gaut’s ‘Naked Film: Dogma and its Limits’ makes a good analogy between the content of the films and the rules themselves. For instance, one of the commandments concerns ‘forcing the truth out of the characters’. Gaut points out, quite rightly, that this happens in both The Idiots and Festen. In the former, there’s the final revelation of Karen having lost her son. In Festen, the revelation is of Christian and his sister’s sexual abuse by their father. Von Trier, he adds, as one of the most technically accomplished filmmakers of his generation, is just pretending to be an ‘idiot’ when he abandons the basic cinematic techniques and practices to make a raw film like ‘The Idiots’. Like the characters, he pretends to be ‘spazzing’.
The next chapters become somewhat repetitive, with more on Von Trier, the globalisation of Dogma and pieces on some individual projects like Jean-Marc Barr’s Lovers and the millennium project D-Day. There’s also writing on the other Dogma spin-offs (Dogma Dance, Dogumentary etc…) and the volume includes appendixes with the rules, the filmography and useful references for those who want to expand their research on the movement.
Purity and Provocation may not tell you much you didn’t know already or hadn’t concluded yourself – though a detailed critical analysis of the movement is somewhat overdue – and the articles tend to repeat the same points across different essays. Also absent is some negative criticism – these are usually rushed through and not properly explored.
Dogma 95 has legitimised stripped-down filmmaking and the use of digital video due to its emphasis on aesthetics, making it culturally adaptable as a guiding light to different national cinemas. However, one point that is hard to digest is the denial of the film auteur, a paradox to which Thomas Vinterberg himself owned up. Cinema as art is in essence a medium of ideas which, although collective in their formation, are brought to life by a single director.