The earlier part of the 20th Century was, according to Widding (1998), the Golden Age of Danish Cinema. It was to be a short lived success and from then on Danish Cinema remained a marginal film country and saw a slow transition into modern film. In the later part of the 20th Century, during the 1970’s and 1980’s, it was youth films that were the most important part of film production. During the 1980’s however, there were growing numbers of film companies and several art film-orientated directors became seriously established, achieving International status.
One of these directors was Lars von Trier, and it is von Trier who is associated with the emergence of Dogme in the mid-1990s. Dogme was conceived in 1995 principally by Lars von Trier and with the assistance of Thomas Vinterberg. In the late 1980’s, von Trier had grown tired of the production of films. The current ‘waves’ of films i. e. French New Wave, German New Wave etc, von Trier claimed, had become ‘washed over’.
America, he claimed, was apolitical, apathetic and counter-revolutionary, it preserved and maintained the status quo and Hollywood productions were laden with special effects.
Therefore it was von Trier’s intent to create a ‘New Wave’ of film, to experiment and attempt to create a new fruitful period for film (Stevenson, 2002). For this new wave of filmmaking, von Trier and Vinterberg created a manifesto, a set of aesthetic rules that filmmakers must abide by in order to produce a Dogme film. These rules were conceived in order to “bring purity back to a medium that had been corrupted by money, creative dishonesty and laziness” (ibid.
The Dogme declaration was conceived and signed by both von Trier and Vinterberg and contained ten strict ‘vows of chastity’ that outlined the technical specifics which a director must adhere to for their film to qualify as a Dogme certified production. The technical specifics are as follows:
1 – Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought. 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 colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. 5 – Optical work and filters are forbidden. 6 – The film must not contain superficial action. 7 – Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. 8 – Genre movies are not acceptable. 9 – The film format must be Academy 35 mm. 10 – The director must not be credited. (Adapted from Dogme95, 2007) On completion of a film, a request is submitted to certify the film as a Dogme production.
In this, the claimant must agree that the film’s production adheres to the ‘vows of chastity’. There are currently around 190 Dogme films listed on the official Dogme95 website. The first Dogme film production was Festen (The Celebration), a Danish film directed by Thomas Vinterberg on a budget of approximately i?? 650,000 (Internet Movie Database (IMDb), 2007). Festen’s storyline is based around the 60th birthday celebration of a family’s patriarch, Helge Klingenfeldt, in which following the disclosure of alleged child buse from Helge’s son, Christian, is witnessed by family members and guests and the celebration becomes a weekend of revelations and events that no guest will ever forget. The second film this essay will address is the fifth installment of Danish Dogme films, Italian For Beginners, written and directed by Lone Scherfig. Italian For Beginners, which remains the highest grossing Danish language film largely due to its success in the United States (Stevenson, 2002; IMDb, 2007), follows the inter-twining paths of six main characters.
In the film, a young minister, a widower, is temporarily assigned to a church whose suspended pastor drove parishioners away; he stays at a hotel where he meets Ji?? rgen, who’s and alone approaching middle age. Ji?? rgen’s friend Halfinn, a temperamental restaurant manager, is about to be fired. Halfinn’s assistant is Giulia, a lovely young Italian who prays for a husband. Olympia, a clumsy bakery clerk, has an ornery father and Karen, a hairdresser, has a mother who is very ill.
The paths of these six characters cross at church, in the restaurant, at the hotel, and at a local school which they begin to attend Italian evening classes. It is the contention of both Festen and Italian For Beginners to adhere to the technical guidelines which the ‘vows of chastity’ outline. To a large extent both films are successful in achieving a plausible attempt at this in alluding to the wishes of von Trier to create a film which does not have the stereotypical glossy feel of a Hollywood blockbuster and taking filmmaking back to basics.
Addressing these technical specifics separately, both films, which do not credit their directors, follow the rule of shooting on location and using props which would normally be found in such a setting. Festen takes place inside a large country house and its’ grounds in rural Denmark. As such, the onscreen action is divided between scenes which occur in the bedrooms, bathrooms, the kitchen, a large dining room and the extended exterior grounds of the house.
Italian For Beginners for the large part takes place in a small Danish town in suburban Copenhagen, with a smaller segment towards the end of the film shot on location in Venice. The film makes excellent functional use of the town it is filmed in by using the main characters’ places of work as filming locations alongside their homes and local amenities such as local cafes, the hospital where Karen’s mother is an inpatient and the school lecture theatre where the main characters congregate on a weekly basis for the Italian classes.
This allows for a range of props to be used which would be naturally located in these settings and largely applies to Italian For Beginners as it employs the use of multiple different locations. As Festen is filmed in fewer locations the use of props occurs to a lesser extent, however, the minor touches to a film which are achieved through the use of props is countered by the use of other technical considerations such as lighting, choice of camera shots, music and also through the use of dialogue and the proxemics of the onscreen action.
The sound that features in these two films is both natural and diagetic and the music which characterises specific scenes in each film is complimentary to the storyline or the onscreen action. Italian For Beginners features music during the various religious services at the church where Andreas is the Pastor, in the Venetian restaurant where the main characters enjoy a romantic Italian meal at the end of the film and during a somber moment at the hospital where Karen is visiting her mother from an adjacent music room. Festen contains fewer incidences of music.
Despite the collective, drunken, singing outbursts of the party guests, the only scene which features explicit music comes after the dinner party when some sleepless, drunk family members, guests and servants gather around the piano to dance in the early hours of the morning. This is integral to the narrative as their drunkenness symbolically marks the deterioration of the Klingenfeldt family at this particular point in the film. The camera work throughout each film uses the Academy 35mm format, neglects the use of both optical work and filters and relies on natural lighting to accompany each shot.
Both films are shot in colour and feature the use of hand-held camera work in alignment with the vows of chastity, characterised by the often shaky camera movements particularly when the camera tracks characters’ movements or switches between shots of characters in a single scene. Furthermore, the films take place without temporal and geographical alienation, however, during the closing scenes of Italian For Beginners the characters stray away from the small Danish town which their previous interactions have taken place in and relocate to Venice to conclude their story.
Despite this geographical shift, the same temporal settings apply to the action and the change in location is very much integral to the storyline as is it provides the opportunity for the culmination of the main characters’ dreams and desires. Festen works in an opposite way to bring together family members and guests from different parts of Denmark and Europe to descend on one specific location in the Danish countryside.
Though the action takes place within many different rooms and in the exterior grounds of the house in which the story is set, the action never moves from these grounds and the equilibrium of the story is destabilized and restored within less than a 24-hour time frame. Superficial action, in terms of murders and the use of weapons, is not a part of either film, though it could be contested that superficial action to some extent is portrayed as both films contain violent outbursts of fighting and aggression.
During Festen, Michael, along with some other guests, are instructed by Helge to remove Christian from the house, a task which they respond to with force and results in a fight between Christian and Michael outside in the woods. Michael is also featured in other scenes displaying aggression towards his wife (Mette) and subsequent to Helge’s confirmation that he did abuse Christian and his sister as children; Michael drags Helge from his bedroom in the middle of the night and begins to assault him in the garden.
Aggressive outbursts similarly occur in Italian For Beginners, however, to a lesser extent than in Festen. Halfinn is a hostile character by nature and although there are no overt physical assaults in Italian For Beginners, there are several aggressive outbursts by Halfinn with Olympia in the baker’s shop when he is refused rum truffles, with the hotel manager when he is fired from his restaurant job and with two patrons of the restaurant who won’t remove their feet from a table. Where the two films fall short of meeting all of the criteria for a Dogme film, is with the assignment of genre.
The Dogme manifesto states that to qualify as a Dogme film that genre movies are not acceptable (Dogme95, 2007), but this presents itself as a problematic area. Italian For Beginners is chiefly characterised as a romantic comedy and Festen could be labelled as a family drama or a black comedy, thus breaking the fundamental Dogme rule of no assigned genre. This area becomes problematic because in all forms of art, particularly those including the spoken word and action, there are conventions that exist which characterise texts and films and it would be near impossible to create a film that could not be assigned a genre.
Marshall and Werndly (2002:114) define genre as “a type of text” which includes “particular and recognizable characteristics that exist within a text that relate it to other texts”. Some forms of genre identified by Myers (1994:210) include; a murder mystery, a riddle, a sonnet, a collections letter, or a demonstration advertisement. Furthermore, it is a specific text type which is “characterized primarily by the kind of relationship it sets up between its users and certain textual properties” which is important to create a relational value between the audience and the text.
Moreover, genre is a highly important factor with the marketing of a film. The balance of romance and comedy in Italian For Beginners is perhaps the main component of the film that contributed to its imminent success across the continents as it provides a relational value. Festen was also successful at several International film festivals, chiefly because it was the much anticipated first Dogme production, but it could be argued that part of its success is because it too has a relational value with the audience.
Its popularity may have spread because of the elements of production that gave it a genre for filmgoers to relate to, be entertained by and to be interested in. As previously stated, it was the initial contention of the brotherhood to take filmmaking back to basics and remove the Hollywood gloss in a new wave of film production. Adams (2001:1) notes that: “The film business, they (von Trier and Vinterberg) concluded, had become overly dependent on special effects, fancy camerawork, and other techniques of production.
Rather than being built on the bedrock foundations of drama – actors playing real human beings in a story – movies were becoming more and more dependent on gratuitous action, special lighting, impressive sets, optical effects, audio engineering, and all the other gee-whiz paraphernalia of showbiz. The vital essence of film, dramatic narrative, was in danger of being submerged in glitz. And as if this weren’t enough, they also concluded that the cult of personality surrounding the film director was detrimental to making good films.
Movies are not the work of a single visionary, they argued, and too many directors spend time making “artistic statements” to gratify their own egos when they should be concentrating on characters and story”. Meddings and Thornbury (2000:1) further state that the Dogme brotherhood, most notably von Trier, “rejected Hollywood razzmatazz, and saw itself as a “rescue action”, attempting to restore to cinema the “inner story” of its characters and to rehabilitate, for the makers of films, their original joy in film-making”.
This would be largely achieved through dialogue and an intense focus on the characters and an attempt to “reclaim reality by a wholesale purge of their aesthetic means” (Matthews, 1999). Naturally, for what is essentially ‘lost’ by rejecting the special effects, fancy camerawork and removing the Hollywood gloss from production, somewhere along the line must be compensated for in order to keep Dogme films visually interesting, but yet still working within the boundaries of the ‘vows of chastity’.
In both Festen and Italian For Beginners, this is achieved by two different interpretations of working within the ‘vows of chastity’, particularly the rules concerned with camera work, sound, locations and lighting. Beginning with Festen, once the siblings have arrived at the country house and are preparing for dinner there are increasingly rapid cuts between three different scenes which include separate storylines for Christian, Helene and Michael.
Christian and Pia (a chambermaid, friend and past lover of Christian’s) remain in Christian’s room discussing the past as Pia prepares to take a bath. Michael and Mette are seen in their bedroom arguing about Mette not packing appropriate shoes for Michael to dress in for dinner, a conversation in which Michael reveals the underlying feelings of his father’s disapproval of him because he did not attend the funeral of his sister (Linda).
The absence of correct coloured dinner shoes to match his black suit adds fuel to this argument which eventually results in Michael being physically aggressive towards Mette and the instigation of sex which the viewer deduces is not wholly consensual on Mette’s part. Following this Michael is seen showering as Mette prepares herself for dinner. Meanwhile, Helene and Lars (the receptionist) enter Linda’s former bedroom which has the furniture covered in white sheets and in which Helene is supposed to reside in over the course of the weekend.
As Helene leads Lars into the bathroom, the two begin to play a game of ‘getting warmer’, marked by following small drawings on the white walls, which is a familiar game from Helene’s childhood. The intense focus on the bath in the bathroom suggests to the viewer that this is where Linda committed suicide only months prior to this gathering. The game ends with Helene locating an apparent suicide note from Linda in a light fixture on the ceiling that she conceals in her handbag without reading and which is later read at dinner.
The filming cuts between these three separate scenes in an intense building of suspense and the cuts gradually become faster, cutting at integral parts of the story. The climax of the scene occurs as Pia who has been pictured underwater in the bath (mimicking Linda’s possible drowning) as Helene begins to read the suspected suicide note. Helene shouts ‘boo’ to Lars, Pia rises out of the water gasping for air and Michael yells as he falls in the shower and pulls down shower rail. These three separate cuts occur simultaneously, consuming less than two seconds of screen time.
Additionally, using hand-held cameras to track the characters’ movements and to switch to views of different guests in their rooms, outside and in the dining room provides an interesting detail of this film appearing similar to a home video of a family’s celebration. Cameras are also placed in unnatural positions during some scenes; as Helene pushes Linda’s apparent suicide note into a pill tube pulled from her purse after locating it, a camera is placed under the bottom of the pill tube to capture the note being pushed into the brown tube.
Also, in the same sequence in Linda’s bedroom, the camera captures the action of the ‘getting warmer’ game from above, providing an almost bird’s eye view of events as the camera is attached to a boom mic. However, this is something which breaks one of the vows of chastity as the camera at the point is not technically being hand-held by the standards of the Dogme manifesto.