When the topic of restriction first came up I immeadiately thought of the Dogme 95 movement. It seemed like such an obvious response that I spent some time hunting around for another topic. Inevitably though I’ve come back to Dogme. Partly because it really is a great example of working under restriction, but also because the films created within the movement are so striking in their subversion of the restrictions placed on them. This also gave me the opportunity to revisit two films I enjoy immensely, Festen (1998) and It’s All About Love (2003); both directed by Thomas Vinterberg and written by Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov.
A little background then. Dogme 95 and the ‘Vow of Chastity’ were written in 1995 by 2 Danish film makers, Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Whilst the Vow itself is somewhat heavy handed in language and content Vinterberg recalls it was written quickly and both the authors found the process highly amusing. A quick scan of the Vow clues us in to what they might have found so funny. To say the vow is restrictive is an understatement. In amongst by-laws governing the use of hand held cameras and artificial lights there is also the following edict (placed at 2 on the list);
The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
In one fell swoop the Vow effectively reduces the post production sound process to the mix; no cutting, designing, sweetening, scoring, or editing permitted. Taken together with the rest of the Vow, the level of restriction placed on the film maker seems overwhelming and yet a number of films have been produced adhering (more or less) to the Dogme principles. Number 1, and perhaps the best of the bunch is Festen.
I first saw Festen in 2003 and I probably wouldn’t have seen it at all if not for the fact that I was writing a review of Vinterberg’s (relatively) big budget sci-fi outing It’s All About Love. Festen was then and remains now a fascinating piece of film making. To the uninitiated it’s entirely possible to watch the film without necessarily querying the underlying restrictive process that’s gone into making it; a testament to both strength of the narrative as well as the bold decisions taken in the filming and editing. But when you do begin to query the process, what becomes immediately apparent is that adherence to the Vow allows Vinterberg and the makers of Festen to highlight some of the excesses which can creep into modern film production rather than to expose the limitations in their own.
The use of sound is a perfect example of this. First a technicality; there is no problem with the intelligibility of the dialogue (as I speak neither Danish nor German I’ve confirmed this with a qualified colleague). By modern standards the soundtrack is minimal, lacking some of the complexity in the backgrounds that might be found in a modern film and which might indeed add considerably to the narrative and ambience of a modern film. However what’s also missing in Festen’s soundscape is the jarring intrusion of ADR and over-complicated Foley. And the almost total absence of score is refreshing. Then again, by contrast it’s missing some of the cinematic sound tropes that we have come to expect. There are no sonic cues for mood. No use of reverb and spatialisation to isolate characters (check out the celebration scene in Thor – The Dark World). No score to underpin or undercut a sequence. Instead the camera work is at once hand held and arch, with cutting and sonics to match. But when it stops there are static long shots, near silent, and truly un-nerving in the sparseness of their sonic palette.
Following Festen with another Dogme film would have been difficult and it seems unlikely that Vinterberg ever intended to do so. Instead he seemed to relish the prospect of ‘rebelling against the rebellion’ and instead chose to embrace the studio machine. Perhaps inevitably the resulting film, It’s All About Love, failed to deliver in the same way Festen did, being somewhat convoluted and overblown whilst also clearly demonstrating Vinterberg’s complete excision of the Vow. I still really enjoy the film, just as I still enjoy Festen. They are two sides of a very complex process, each with their own idiosyncrasies, successes, and flaws.
Whether you ascribe to the restrictive nature of the Vow or not, Vinterberg notes that the very process of following these rules, indeed any restrictive practise at all, means that subsequently breaking or subverting them is a new kind of liberation. Having post production sound, lighting, CGI; these were treats that can be fully appreciated only after having worked without them. With this point in mind, perhaps above all others, a little restriction might be seen to go a long way.
In writing this article I read the following which may be of interest to anyone wanting to know more.
After The Celebration : Thomas Vinterberg’s It’s All About Love by Arne Lunde – Film International Issue 50
Von Trier’s Cinematic Games by Jan Simons in Journal of film and video 60.1
REBEL YELL: The politics of The Celebration/Festen by Brian Michael Goss in Studies in European Cinema Volume 6 Numbers 2&3