Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Celebration

(Festen, Denmark/Sweden, 1998)

In 1995 Danish filmmakers Lars von [sic] Trier and Thomas Vinterberg announced the formation of something called the Dogme 95 Collective. Ostensibly a rebellion against big-budget artificiality, it had (I’m not making this up) a “Vow of Chastity,” 10 rules that prospective members had to agree to abide by. These are the rules [from Wikipedia]:

1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed.)
3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.)
4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
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 that the film takes place here and now.)
8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
9. The final picture must be transferred to the Academy 35mm film, with an aspect ratio of 4:3, that is, not wide screen. (Originally, the requirement was that the film had to be filmed on Academy 35mm film, but the rule was relaxed to allow low-budget productions.)
10. The director must not be credited.

The professed idea was to “free” artists from the shackles of commercial movie-making. It was also felt that “The audience may also be more engaged as they do not have overproduction to alienate them from the narrative, themes, and mood.”

A moment’s reflection and study of that incredible list will surely disabuse you of any notion of “freedom” being granted to anybody. I can’t imagine a tighter straitjacket than that list, and it (unintentionally) reveals Lars Trier—a director I loathe—as the Nazi control freak he is, at heart. I don’t know much about Vinterberg, but I note that neither of these founding fathers is still adhering to the Vow. Both put their names on their films now, a practice I’d advise Trier to abandon if he keeps slapping it on movies like Dogshit. (Sorry, I meant Dogville.) If you don’t believe me about Trier’s desire to control everything around him, take a look at an excellent little film called The Five Obstructions, possibly the only film with his name on it that’s any good. The reason it’s good is an odd one. He challenges a director named Jørgen Leth—a man whose clapperboard Trier is unworthy to clap—to a sort of cinematic duel. He imposes a series of stricter and stricter rules on the older, rather bemused director, challenging him to come up with a good movie within ridiculous limitations. And Leth does it, time and again, to the increasing frustration of the little Fascist. (The only good thing I can say for Trier is that he allowed the film to be released, even though he must realize he looks like a fool.)

Okay, on to the film … which is better than it deserves to be, given the stupid Vow. It is the story of the birthday party from Hell. The Big Daddy of a large and flamboyantly dysfunctional family is celebrating his 60th at the family home/hotel. At dinner his eldest son almost casually announces, in a toast, that his father raped him and his sister—a recent suicide—when they were children. And that’s only for the first course; things go downhill from there. Denial (especially from the loathsome mother, who witnessed it and did nothing), accusations, violence, you name it. Then the next morning they all gather for breakfast. It’s a surreal scene … and that’s all that I need to say about the plot.

I have no objection to any of the 10 rules, per se, I just object to them as a rigid formula. The available light dictum can be challenging, and can actually result in some nice effects, and it does here. But the hand-held camera simply reinforces the artificiality of the method. I am constantly aware of the camera, whether being held by an epileptic (as most of the camera operators here seem to be) or placed in an impossible position with a fisheye lens. They go to ridiculous lengths to adhere to the stupid rules, and it detracts from the emotional impact. In fact, I think it would be a much better film if it were to be remade with tripods, camera dollies, boom mikes, and all the other impedimenta of a crassly commercial film. Maybe even a little touch of music. No need to overdo it. Just because you record an intelligible sound track doesn’t mean you have to lard in a lot of CGI, fer chrissake!