At Cannes ’98, Dogma 95 has its day

DOGMA HAS ITS DAY: Among the footnotes to the 1998 Cannes Film Festival was the appearance in the competition of two films shot under an artistic credo called Dogma 95. The manifesto, which has but two signatories, Danish directors Lars von Trier (“The Idiots”) and Thomas Vinterberg (“The Celebration”), caused quite a bit of talk thanks to its “Vow of Chastity,” a set of 10 quite stringent rules under which a Dogma 95 film must be made.

The “Vow,” incidentally, has absolutely nothing to do with sexual abstinence — “The Idiots” contains gobs of nudity and an orgy that includes hardcore sex. Its intentions are strictly in the cause of aesthetic purity, a discipline with which to fight the “technological storm” that has swept over motion pictures, “of which the result is the elevation of cosmetics to God. By using new technology anyone at any time can wash the last grains of truth away in the deadly embrace of sensation. The illusions are everything the movie can hide behind.”

The Dogma 95 rules, slightly abridged, run as follows:

1. Shooting must be done on location.

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa.

3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.

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

5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

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

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say, the film takes place in the here and now.)

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

9. The film format must be Academy 35mm.

10. The director must not be credited.

THE AIM OF ALL THESE MANDATES, per von Trier, was to “cast off the burdens” and “escape from rigidity,” to “regain lost innocence” in the way films are made. On another level, he said, “the Dogma rules emerged from a desire to submit to the authority and the rules I was never given in my humanistic, cultural-leftist upbringing; at another level they express the desire to make something quite simple.”

In practice, however, what the Dogma dictates yielded are two films that look remarkably similar: “The Idiots” and “The Celebration” both bombard the viewer with grainy images, chaotic camera movements, unstable set-ups and willy-nilly jump-cutting. For a while, the approach can be energizing; it certainly enlivens what would otherwise be routine, hard-going exposition in “The Celebration,” for instance. But the same herky-jerky style proves inappropriate for the gravity of the film’s third act, where a more grounded, less intrusive camera would have allowed the power of the climax to come through with considerably more force.

Already a cliche, more a publicity stunt than a style (von Trier himself ignored several of the rules in the non-Dogma “Breaking the Waves,” filming in widescreen and giving himself one of the most prominent screen credits in memory), Dogma 95 received its 15 minutes of fame in Cannes this year and is very unlikely to enlist many more subscribers (especially in Hollywood, where the prohibition on a director’s credit alone will be enough to discourage any interest).

But another Dogma emerged at Cannes this year as well, one not yet codified officially but which has a lot to do with what it takes this season to be considered edgy and au courant.

According to what was onscreen this year, the following are the Dogma 98 rules for international art cinema:

1. Include as much full-frontal male nudity as possible.

After years of coyly turning actors around or framing them just so in nude scenes, the bread is out of the basket, so to speak, as filmmakers seem to be going out of their way to emphasize what was so long forbidden. In a mere Cannes sampling, male members were featured prominently in the aforementioned “The Idiots” (von Trier and U.S. distrib October are talking about using the old skin magazine technique of blacking out the offending area of the hardcore scenes to gain an R rating), Patrice Chereau’s “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train” from France (Vincent Perez in the middle of a sex change), John Maybury’s Francis Bacon biopic “Love Is the Devil” from the U.K., Ana Kokkinos’ Aussie gay/Greek drama “Head On,” Francois Ozon’s “Sitcom” from France and Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine,” with the ubiquitous Ewan McGregor.

2. Depict a liberal supply of rough/unsatisfactory/abusive and/or paid sex.

This goes for films across the board, gay and straight. In fact, I can only think of two or three films in Cannes in which a woman enjoyed evident sexual fulfillment, most notably Benoit Jacquot’s “The School of Flesh,” with the wondrous Isabelle Huppert. Most of the films in category one fit into this section, as do Lodge Kerrigan’s “Claire Dolan” (in which Katrin Cartlidge’s prostitute never seems to be satisfied even by the men she desires), Hector Babenco’s “Foolish Heart” ( in which, as in many of the films, the man finishes his business in a matter of seconds), Hal Hartley’s “Henry Fool” (ditto), “The Celebration,” Shohei Imamura’s “Kanzo Sensei,” Erick Zonca’s “The Dreamlife of Angels” and Alexi Guerman’s “Khrustalyov, My Car!,” in which a man is defiled with a shovel.

3. Put the spotlight on what is now regarded as the most taboo of crimes, pedophilia.

Sex with children constitutes a major preoccupation in Todd Solondz’s excellent U.S. indie “Happiness,” “The Celebration,” Claude Miller’s “The Class Trip” from France, Victor Gaviria’s “The Rose Seller” from Colombia, just among the films I saw. Apparently, the “Lolita” curse hasn’t discouraged any number of international filmmakers from pushing fearlessly into this deeply disturbing area.