Cinema: It's a laughing shame
Sunday 16 May 1999
Director: Lars von Trier Starring: Bodil Jorgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing (117 mins; 18)
Lars von Trier's is a strange film. Not just self-applaudingly offbeat, like a lot of current cinema, but truly disturbing. This is one European production that never had a hope of being picked up by the Weinstein brothers for American distribution. And even though I myself found it extraordinary, it shouldn't be assumed that the review you are about to read is a straightforward recommendation. With , reader, you're on your own.
Much, but by no means all, of the film's strangeness resides in its subject- matter. A band of what one presumes are students and dropouts withdraw into a vacant suburban house in Denmark from which they make regular sorties into the local town in the guise of ungainly, drooling ... well, what? What exactly is one supposed to call them? Mentally retarded persons? Mental defectives? Morons? Yes, I know, all of these are, in ascending order of offensiveness, brutally un-PC terms. But then, as its title makes clear, is a brutally un-PC film. It would be a craven betrayal of its anarchic spirit were one to tiptoe around words, situations and behavioural disorders that its narrative serves up raw. Especially as the grossness of the antisocial "spassing" that the characters indulge in on screen - slobbering over their meals in a posh restaurant, "innocently" baring their breasts and flaunting their erections in a public baths - was patently intended less to convey a sense of mimetic accuracy and subtlety than to confront us with our own worst prejudices about the disabled.
That would already be interesting, if not enough in itself to make as unsettling an object as it is. Too many directors these days delude themselves that they're on the cutting edge of subversive film- making without realising that the outrageousness of their subject-matter has been fatally undermined by the conventionality of their style. What is unique about , the first work to have been shot in strict accordance with the ascetically self-denying precepts of Dogma 95 (though the second, following Thomas Vinterberg's Festen, to be released in Britain), is that one has the impression that those behind the camera were almost as crazy as those in front of it.
Dogma, a bizarre manifesto signed up to by a quartet of Danish film- makers, prohibits the use of studio decors, artificial lighting, background music and any props other than those chanced across on location. There's an undeniable element of mischievous provocation in such a set of rules, not surprisingly from as peculiar an individual as von Trier, who, in any case, had no scruples about violating them whenever it suited him (a male porn actor, for example, was belatedly brought in to beef up, so to speak, the fleetingly hard-core orgy scene); and, until a recent visit to Denmark, I, like most critics, had declined to take them too seriously.
In Ebeltoft, however, one of Europe's most remarkable film schools, plonked down in a dozily isolated resort town on the Jutland coast - a relaxed and friendly open prison, as one of the students described it to me, in which the inmates make movies rather than mail sacks - I was screened a fascinating documentary about the shooting of which convinced me not only that the Dogma creed had enabled von Trier to achieve a spontaneity impossible under normal filming conditions but also that the finished work was an uncanny mirror image of the shoot that had preceded it. Think about it, after all: a band of performers withdraw into a vacant suburban house in Denmark from which they make regular sorties into the local town in the guise of ungainly, drooling idiots. That's what happened during the shoot and, if one replaces the word "performers" with "students", it's also what happens in the film. And not even the only real difference between the two, the presence of the camera, is as great as it might be. But even that difference is not as great as it might be. Since, in conformity with Dogma's articles of faith, the filming is often wilfully amateurish, von Trier's camera is nearly as present for us as it was for the cast.
It's obvious, too, that the tensions that arise among the characters, who all have their own and sometimes mutually incompatible reasons for "spassing", were generated by tensions among the performers, which means that there's a shattering immediacy to the performances. To cap it all, von Trier himself, allegedly to put his cast at ease during the several scenes that required full-frontal nudity, directed them naked from the waist down. (I repeat: down, not up.) Every film is equally a documentary of its own shoot, but in this case the demarcation line has been blurred to a discombobulating degree.
Such experimentation is all very well, you may think, but is actually watchable? I can only say that I thought it both tremendously moving and funny. The main strand of its episodic narrative, involving the lonely, tragic Karen who joins the commune almost by chance, builds up to a climax that brought tears to my eyes and should be made compulsory viewing for all practitioners of the Loachleigholdmanboyle school of self-styled "gritty" realism.
I should also point out that, in one sequence, the "idiots" invite two young people with Down's syndrome to an alfresco lunch. They seem to enjoy themselves and they are not humiliated. I have absolutely no problem with their appearance in the film.
So there it is. Not everyone's cup of tea and, indeed, not a cup of tea at all, but one of those extremely rare films that aren't content to leave the cinema as they found it. Next week I'll be writing about Notting Hill, and normal service will be resumed.
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