Film: Letter to Lars von Trier

Adam Mars-Jones wishes that the director of The Idiots would dump the Dogme and get down to some real film-making
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The Independent Culture
Dear Lars von Trier - no scratch that - Dear signatories of the Dogme 95 manifesto, Copenhagen-based collective of radical film-makers (may I call you Lars?).

Okay, you've made your point, you've had your fun. So far, two films have been produced - first Festen and now The Idiots - in accordance with the "Vow of Chastity" you've all taken: shooting must be done on location, sound recorded at the same time as the images, hand-held camera and so on. Now can you go back to making proper movies, please?

It's not that the films are terrible - Festen in particular is an effective little melodrama - although they aren't exactly fun to watch. Where did you get the idea that a shaky image was inherently honest? Cinema verite is a dead letter, believe me. I don't know if you go to the movies much, but if you do you'll have noticed that the most powerful documentaries of recent years (those by Errol Morris, for instance) dispense with the pathos of amateurism altogether and choose to stylise the way they look. The only place you'll see the camera twitching and twirling these days is in American television shows like NYPD Blue, and for much the same reasons you make it shaky: as a rhetorical guarantee of non-slickness. The thing is, if a film really isn't slick, it doesn't need to shout "I'm not slick! I'm not slick!" the whole time.

Take Festen, for instance. I know it's not a film you had anything to do with directly. It was directed by Thomas Vinterburg. I hope neither of you minds me mentioning the fact, although you both signed the Dogme manifesto, rule 10 of which stipulates that "The director must not be credited". But then what that means in practice is that the director's name is omitted from the film itself, a dereliction of authorship immediately corrected in the press kit, the reviews, the adverts and the posters for the movie.

Since you're well known internationally, Lars, and Mr Vinterburg is not, the net effect of rule 10 was that your name was constantly invoked in discussions of someone else's film. Are you really so naive about the gravitational workings of celebrity as to be surprised by this? We're only thrilled by the desire for anonymity of people we've heard of.

But back to Vinterburg's film. It tells the story of a patriarch's 60th birthday celebrations, in the course of which one of his sons accuses him of long-term sexual abuse. For a while the facade of respectability holds up, but eventually the family secrets tumble out, very much as they do in hundreds of Hollywood films. In fact, by the end of the film truth has been established and blame allotted with a certainty quite unlike anything in real life.

Rule 6 of the Manifesto outlaws "superficial action" - murders and so on. But a melodrama like Festen can hardly dispense with such things. So the screenplay includes superficial action at one remove: the hero's sister killed herself some time ago, but she did so in the self-same house where the birthday celebrations take place, and she left a note explaining her suicide, only nobody discovered it till now. The note passes from hand to hand according to the laws of superficial action, and ends up in the most melodramatic place right on cue.

There is one magical moment of atmosphere in Festen, when the hero, exhausted by the effort of truth-telling in a hostile environment, has a vision of his dead sister. "Special lighting" is forbidden by rule 4, "optical work and filters" by rule 5, but luckily the characters are using candles and cigarette lighters at this point, so the director doesn't need to dirty his hands with artifice. "Shall I come to you?" asks the hero, and his dead sister tenderly shakes her head. Rule 7 insists that "the film must take place in the here and now", rule 8 that "genre movies are not acceptable" - quite how these stipulations are compatible with the appearance of a ghost isn't clear. But even if this sequence bows to the letter of the law, it departs from its spirit, and is much the better for it.

The Idiots, released this week - which you did direct, Lars - is a less satisfactory demonstration of the no-gimmick gimmick. The action takes place over roughly a fortnight, so the film doesn't have an exemplary simple structure like Festen's long-day's-journey-into-night.

A middle-aged woman tags along with a group of people she meets in a restaurant, some of whom appear to be mentally disabled. They turn out to be faking it, and at first she's disapproving of the role-playing commune they've set up, but gradually she's drawn into their games. When the group tests its members by sending them back to their real lives to continue acting out, she is the only one who, with grotesque pathos, passes the test.

When a film looks deliberately ramshackle, like The Idiots, the effect can be to mask elements that are slick, or else to hide things that are truly ramshackle. For instance, there's a moment in the film when the father of one of the group members turns up to reclaim her. It turns out that she's mentally ill, and not taking her medication. The point here isn't altogether simple: it's partly that in this environment she doesn't need her medication, but also that the group members are in effect taking responsibility for other people without being responsible themselves. But the problem with the scene is that until her Dad turns up, the young woman has been a completely unrealised character. She hardly exists until her big scene. The ending is even more unsatisfactory. What you leave your audience with, Lars, is manipulation in a context where manipulation has been declared a crime.

There's a part of the Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity, not a numbered rule (you should always read the small print) which says: "My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings." It's hard to see how The Idiots lives up to that.

It may be that the film is, in part, a fantasy transformation of the whole Dogme project itself: deliberate regression, shallow anti-authoritarianism, the commune with a capricious tyrant at its centre. And it may be that you have already done all you need to do in this style.

Chastity isn't for everyone (even the Pope is with me there). And it doesn't suit you. You won over audiences with Breaking The Waves because your way of manipulating them was unlike anyone else's. The film was in many ways preposterous, with its themes of redemption and madness, but it was also overwhelming.

The last time a major film-maker tied himself to a set of politico-aesthetic doctrines, it was Jean-Luc Godard, and he all but disappeared into it. I don't think the same is going to happen to you. You're too much of a maverick to play by the rules, even your own. Your vow of chastity is as likely as not to end in an orgy of artifice.

Parhaps you'll look back on The Idiots one day and wonder what it was that you thought you were doing. Because - that squirming, unruly little thing you threw out with the bathwater? That was the baby.

Von Trier on

Von Trier

On his directorial style: "I am a masturbator of cinema"

On running with the herd: "If a lot of people are making Dogme films, I won't be"

On filming The Idiots: I became jealous of the actors, that they could freak out. I was definitely not an idiot among the idiots."

On The Idiots: "I can't see it as an experiment. It's the least artificial thing I've done."