“A hyper-intelligent child who is slightly disturbed, playing with dolls in a dollhouse, cutting their heads off with nail clippers.” That’s how actor Stellan Skarsgard describes his frequent director, Lars Von Trier, in one of many memorable scenes from “Dogville Confessions,” a companion documentary to von Trier’s recent Cannes competitor, compiled from candid homevideo footage recorded during the 2-month production of “Dogville” in 2002. Following in the tradition of such other on-the-set docus as “Burden of Dreams” and “Hearts of Darkness,” pic is arguably less interested in the making of von Trier’s film than in its frequent near-unmaking, as disgruntled actors and an oft-befuddled von Trier try to get a fix on the movie’s vanguard style. Like those earlier docus, “Dogville Confessions” is inextricably connected to “Dogville” itself, unlikely to generate much exposure beyond inclusion on an eventual “Dogville” DVD, or in some other companion showing with the film.
Opening with overhead shots of von Trier’s enormous Copenhagen “Dogville” soundstage, docu’s early sections deal with the arrival of the (mostly American) actors on location and the lengthy rehearsal process needed to work out the production’s various kinks.
Given that the actors are working on a chalk-outlined set with only a few props and pieces of sets for reference, there’s enormous time given to things that most film companies never have to worry about, like where exactly all the imaginary doors and windows are (so that the actors don’t walk right through them).
Once production begins, there’s humorous footage of von Trier (who also served as “Dogville’s” cinematographer and camera operator) suited up in full steadicam regalia, nicknamed “Robodirector” by the crew.
The “Confessions” part of docu’s title refers to a “confessional booth,” akin to the ones popularized by MTV’s “The Real World” series — a small room installed by docu’s director, Sami Saif, in a corner of the “Dogville” soundstage, where cast and crew come to “privately” express their feelings about the progress of the production. These confessional segments have been intercut with the more traditional behind-the-scenes footage, and there aren’t nearly enough of them. An exhausted Nicole Kidman, a bitter Paul Bettany and, particularly, a delightfully acerbic Lauren Bacall are so refreshingly unguarded in these moments that you wish the entire film had been constructed only of them.
But it is von Trier himself whose shadow looms largest over “Dogville Confessions,” inviting Saif along for endless rides in his infamous camper van (yes, the one von Trier regularly uses to make the trip from Copenhagen to Cannes). He waxes solipsistically about the rigors of the filmmaking process and a variety of paranoid fantasies (among them: the belief that the cast of his movie is conspiring against him). And, as with all things Lars, there is the suggestion that everything we are seeing in Saif’s film could be an elaborate put-on, staged by von Trier as a way of maintaining the swirl of melodrama he seems to need in his life as much as in his films.
In keeping with the aesthetics of the film it’s about, “Dogville Confessions” has been lensed in washed-out colors in widescreen digital video and then transferred to 35mm film.