How Dogme’s Rules Liberate Creativity

by Liam Williams

It’s incredibly appropriate that the ten-point manifesto which constitutes the rules of a Dogme 95  film was conceived in just under half an hour by directors Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier, as all the films in the movement have this essence of spontaneity. Handheld cameras, props on location, no sound separate from the image, no artificial lighting, and no genre. These rules seek to remove the excess that has become so commonplace in modern cinema. The films made under these rules prove undoubtedly that at its core, film is a simple art form. The Celebration, The Idiots, and Italian for Beginners are examples of how these limits were used to liberate the filmmakers and create compelling films.

The Celebration (Vinterberg, 1998):

“The result is a daring script that balances humorand substance expertly, creating a raw tone that feels almost necessary.”

The movement starts with The Celebration. As the first film to come out which abided by a set of  rules that could easily have resulted in something tedious, Vinterberg’s ambition helps The Celebration be a thoroughly entertaining watch for anyone. The film is set in a fancy hotel, the characters are eccentric and uncompromising, and most scenes contain a sea of bodies dressed in tuxedos and designer dresses. This is as lavish as the first Dogme 95 film could have been. Additionally, it’s extremely kinetic, fully taking advantage of the handheld camera. Even in moments of shellshock, such as when Christian makes his shocking speech accusing his father of sexually assaulting him, the camera is frantically jittering as we cut from face to face, it’s as if we’re at the dinner as a member of the family, digesting what everyone has just heard. It’s equally shocking, confusing and amusing altogether. These qualities are so important, as it shows that Dogme 95 films, whilst stripped back in their production, do not have to be mundane.  Vinterbeg commented in an interview with VRPro that to compensate for the restrictions of Dogme 95, he decided to be “absolutely consequential” with his characters. The result is a daring script that balances humor and substance expertly, creating a raw tone that feels almost necessary. The temptation to use tools such as music and a higher quality camera might have hindered the direction overall.

The Idiots (Trier, 1998):

Considering that part of Von Trier’s reasoning for creating Dogme 95 was to take away a lot of what has turned filmmaking–at a high level–into a somewhat complicated process, it makes sense that his first effort under the restrictions, The Idiots, is such a primal film, in terms of its production and one that arguably best reflects the values of Dogme 95. The script was written in a matter of days and was not redrafted, and improvisation was heavily encouraged. The film centers around a group of adults who pretend to be mentally handicapped. An action they call “spazzing” when the situation requires it. This seems to parallel Von Trier’s desire to lose control with Dogme 95 and is part of the reason why ‘primal’ is the first word I’d use to describe it. It hardly feels like there’s any direction in this film due to how loose the filmmaking style is. In writing these characters this way, and not holding the actors too close to the script, Von Trier essentially asks his actors to lose control with him, resulting in entertaining performances. This premise also reflects the obscure movement in its character’s desire to abstain from typical processes.

“The Idiots, while bizarre, is profoundly human in ways in which most films are not...“

There’s also this sense of duology which naturally comes with the double-life aspect of the characters in the film. Stoffer’s birthday party scene is one in which I think well encapsulates this theme. What starts off as a wholesome scene quickly evolves into a “gangbang”. Without the  layering of music and lighting of usual sex scenes in movies, it feels almost invasive to be watching. This scene is probably one of the most radical things Von
Trier could have possibly made within the rules
of Dogme.

Yet, moments later we get a more tender scene between two of the characters that feels like it's not of the same film. The room is dark compared to the harsh afternoon daylight. In the first half of the scene, the characters are much less frantic, and they tell each other “I love you”. This feels like one of few moments where the characters are not playing their alter egos. It’s such a  simple moment. The contrasting imagery of the two scenarios show the simultaneous and almost conflicting desires. The Idiots, while bizarre, is profoundly human in ways in which most films are not, a feeling which is greatly enhanced by the rules of Dogme 95, which lend filmmakers to focus so much on the humanity of their characters.

Italian for Beginners (Scherfig, 2000):

Unlike Festen and The Idiots, which feel like films that were made with Dogme 95 in mind, Italian for Beginners could exist without Dogme. Director Lone Scherfig admitted that the script would not have changed whether the film was part of the movement or not. After getting fired from a restaurant which he loved, football fan Hal-Finn takes over the local Italian class and turns out to be a rather competent teacher.

A lot of the community end up attending, and various pairs fall in love.  It's as simple a film as the Dogme rules tempt one to make, and I think it's effective. In this romantic comedy setting the Dogme rules serve as protection from the many stereotypes of modern rom-coms, which result in Italian for Beginners standing out. A focus on the chemistry between the actors is particularly noticeable, and, outstanding here, especially between Jorgen and Giulia who are delightfully awkward around each other. These are the least extravagant performances that I have seen, when considering all three films listed. They resonate with me because of how natural and grounded they felt, unlike in The Celebration and The Idiots, which demanded more dynamic performances. Moments like Giulia running around the corner of the building to pretend that she had to think about whether she would accept Jorgen’s proposal or not are beautifully amplified by their simplicity. Whilst a Dogme 95 film is not supposed to be a genre film, Italian for Beginners is a perfect example of how stripping back the filmmaking process can elevate a genre film.

The Dogme 95 movement ultimately proves that there is no need for filmmaking to be this expensive, meticulous process. By simplifying the filmmaking process to something more limited, actors and directors are given much more freedom and responsibility. This movement should be reaffirming for any aspirational artist. For a movement defined so infamously for its limits, Dogme 95 is a testament to the boundlessness of the artist, the sheer range of work discussed here is proof of that.


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