Tom Sutcliffe: A costume drama drowns in strings

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In 1995 the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg drew up what they described as a Vow of Chastity, a list of ten cinematic commandments which were intended to purify film-making and focus all the energies of the film-maker on story and performance.

As with the other Ten Commandments, they were no sooner formulated than they started to be broken – particularly number ten, which insisted that the director must not be credited. But, for a time at least, the Dogme film movement that the Vow of Chastity inaugurated did create an easily identifiable set of films: naturalistic, spare and intensely concerned with real places and real emotions. Like any bonfire of the vanities this was an essentially reactive affair – a spasm of puritanical disgust – and it soon succumbed to the weakness of directors (and audiences) for little luxuries like special lighting and murder plots and a camera that actually held rock-solid for a while. No film-lover (not even a Dogme film-lover) could really find themselves mourning the fact that the Reformation didn't take.

You do sometimes get a glimpse of what they must have been feeling when they started, though. It happened to me just the other day, watching Dominic Savage's two part television drama Dive – about an Olympic prospect whose path to the 2012 Games is derailed by an unplanned pregnancy. In some respects you might argue that Dive is a chaste film in the Dogme sense. It's filmed on location, without a lot of ostentatious set dressing and largely in what appears to be natural light. It is patient with the awkwardly expressed emotions of its young characters, and observes their lives with a documentary realism that presumably owes something to Savage's background in non-fiction film-making. But in one huge respect it is shockingly sinful. The second commandment of the Vow of Chastity insists that sound must never be produced apart from the images and that music should not be used, unless it occurs within the scene being filmed. And to say that Dive doesn't obey this commandment is putting things mildly. In fact, it goes down with the worst case of inflamed cello I've encountered in 20 years of television reviewing.

In the interests of full disclosure I suppose I should confess that I hate cellos in television dramas anyway. I think I'd just about concede that one would be admissible in a film about Jacqueline du Pré, but even then you would have to do some persuading. And that isn't because I dislike the cello itself, but because its employment on a film soundtrack is almost invariably coercive. It's become as bluntly instructive as a scrolling subtitle reading: "We'd quite like you to get a lump in your throat now".

And in Dive there are times when you feel that the subtitle is never off screen – that sickeningly tasteful plangency wheedling away at you like a nagging child. Savage appears to have been very taken with the East Coast town in which his drama is set, and in particular with an offshore wind-farm, which provides a striking backdrop to long takes of characters looking glum. I'm with him on windfarms – an element of the modern picturesque which isn't treated with anything like enough respect – but unfortunately most of these shots get cello poured over them like syrup, just to ensure that we don't miss their bleak poetry. It begins by being a mild nuisance, mounts to irritation and concludes as unbearable.

There's a double kind of insult here. The character is condescended to, since their own choice of music (pop, most likely in the case of this 14-year-old schoolgirl) is not regarded as sufficiently solemn to carry the weight of feeling the director wants. And we're treated as idiots too – an instrument to be played upon by the transmission of the right kind of classical sound.

It's so infuriating that I wonder whether a modified form of the Dogme rules might not be overdue. My commandments run as follows: you can do anything you want as long it doesn't involve a cello on the soundtrack (or any stringed instrument that might be mistaken for one). Bring back chastity.

Coppola's ridiculous film is out of this world

You may have read the reviews of Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro last week and been puzzled by the pellet spread, with some critics savaging it as a pretentious folly and others praising its beauty and bold indifference to the prevailing norms. Differences of critical opinion are hardly unprecedented, but what was slightly unusual in the case of Tetro is that both sides were spot on. It's a fine example of that rare category of art work – the cherishably bad. This is not remotely the same as "so bad it's good", which is a coarser pleasure. With "so bad it's good" there's no doubt about the quality of what you're watching and a slightly vindictive bad faith in watching. In "cherishably bad", by contrast, the vices shimmer in the strangest way into a virtue, and then back into a vice again – in a way that makes you doubt your verdict as much as the film. So, Tetro is ludicrously overblown, but it understands perfectly well that it is and – to my eyes at least – opens with a shot that warns the viewers they are entering an otherworldy space (one of the characters walks past a banner carrying the enigmatic phrase "You Can Not Go Back"). It takes the risk of being ridiculous with such flair, that even when it is you find yourself admiring its bravado. And it is so beautiful that you feel forgiving anyway.

Ringtones that are a call to arms

The jokily incorporated mobile-phone warning seems to be increasingly common in theatres, by which I mean a pre-curtain announcement is somehow incorporated into the theme of the evening. I take it that managements are desperate to make people pay attention, since the drably functional kind of announcement never seems to work. There always seems to be some oaf or oafess who doesn't notice, or care. I thought Moira Buffini might have cracked the problem with the bracing opening to her new play Welcome To Thebes, which starts with three machine-gun toting rebels aggressively pushing their way to the stage through the auditorium.

"Phones!", bellows their leader furiously. "Any fucking disco tunes and I will not answer for my men." Another backs him up: "They have bad energy and they affect your brain. I'm telling you for your own good," he shouts menacingly, in a way that suggests a bullet may finish the job that microwave radiation has started. And yet, towards the end of the first act, I heard an electronic warble behind me and someone scrabbling to silence their phone. I think it really may take a summary execution to drive the message home.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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