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by David Hudson

Back in early 1995, Lars von Trier called up Thomas Vinterberg and asked him if he'd like to "start a new wave" with him. So the two Danish directors met and spent all of 45 minutes cooking up a ten-point manifesto they called (in caps, always in caps) the VOW OF CHASTITY. So goes the legend, but it's matter-of-fact and self-deprecating enough to believe.

The rest is well-documented history. On March 20, 1995, Lars von Trier was in Paris for the 100th anniversary of cinema and it was there that he unveiled Dogme95. Perhaps intentionally, the rules were strict enough to ensure that the movement wouldn't last long: Shoot only on location, no props, no sets, no additional lighting or optical effects of any kind, no additional sound or music. The film must be in color and the camera must be hand-held. Then there was this refreshing bit:

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a "work", as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations. Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY.

The initial results revealed both how tight the artificial straitjacket was that the group had willingly slipped into and how surprisingly liberating it was as well. Dogme #1 (they were numbered as they appeared), Vinterberg's The Celebration, seems to surreptitiously capture the intrigues, backstabbings and alliances at a big Danish family gathering. The film made several critics' "best of the year" lists in 1999 and won all sorts of awards, including the Jury Prize at Cannes and Best Foreign Film at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Many of the critics who'd gone bonkers over Von Trier's Breaking the Waves were thrown a little off guard by Dogme #2, The Idiots. The cast of characters intentionally "spazzing" out in public is certainly an interesting premise, but critics were divided as to the outcome. According to A.O. Scott in the New York Times, the film "has nothing on its mind besides the squirming discomfort of its audience, the achievement of which it holds up as a brave political accomplishment." Film Threat's James Sweeney disagrees. "Some may take me to task for calling this a funny film," he wrote in his five-out-of-five-star review. "Like Stoffer, the de facto leader of the group, I am unapologetic."

Scott, in turn, was more impressed with Dogme #3. Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune is, he wrote, "by any standard, a pretty good film." The jury at the Berlin Film Festival thought a bit more of it than that, awarding it the Silver Bear and another Special Jury Prize for Kragh-Jacobsen.

As the films kept rolling out, they seemed to make less and less of a splash. By Dogme #4, Kristian Levring's The King is Alive, the novelty had worn off. Jennifer Jason Leigh won raves (as well as the Best Actress Award at the Tokyo Film Festival), but that was about all the noise this film made. It would take Harmony Korine, either the boy genius or obnoxious brat of film in the 90s, take your pick, to rustle feathers again with Dogme #6, Julien Donkey-Boy. Steven Soderbergh, for one, was mighty impressed and had his crew for Full Frontal watch it "repeatedly."

Dogme films were flying out of DV cameras at this point and most were slipping under the radar -- until Dogme #12. With Italian for Beginners, Lone Scherfig had easily made the most accessible Dogme film yet and it was an audience favorite at countless festivals, including Berlin, where it won four awards, the Silver Bear among them.

The story, or rather constellation of stories, revolves around half a dozen lonely Danes looking for love and happiness. And basically, it's as generally simple yet minutely complex as that. But its audience friendliness did not chase off the critics. "Its cast of characters may be a little cute," wrote Susan Gerhard in the SF Bay Guardian, "but by the time they get together for a well-earned metaphorical big group hug in the form of an Italian-class field trip, you'll forget your fear of handheld camera."

The Village Voice's J. Hoberman concurred, writing that the film "takes the chill out of the Danish winter with a snuggly blanket of humanism... You'd need to be a tougher cookie than me to resist the pastor's helpless, benevolent gaze (and surprise tattoo) or the Italian beauty's inexplicable but radiant devotion to a bumbling Dane a dozen years her senior."

Thomas Vinterberg's Festen

In June 2002, after certifying and numbering 31 Dogme films from around the world (with dozens more in production), the "Dogmesecretariat" closed down. "The manifesto of Dogme 95 has almost grown into a genre formula, which was never the intention," reads the announcement on the movement's official site. Nevertheless, filmmakers are encouraged to go on taking the VOW and, for historical purposes, sending copies to a Dogme archive at the University of Copenhagen.

It's hard to measure the impact of Dogme precisely. Many films that might look as if they've been influenced by what you might call the Dogme style are actually simply reflecting a lack of budgetary means. But the look did go mainstream and can be seen in music videos and advertising, most famously in one batch of ads for Mentos breath fresheners. Most of all, the widely varied forms of creativity displayed by the first round of Dogme directors using exactly the same means is definitely an encouragement to any rookie filmmaker with a new DV camera in hand.

Suggestions for further clicking:

GreenCine interview with Lone Scherfig.

Mstreeter's Dogme95 list.

Alan Smithee's "Dogme95 Confession" at McSweeney's.

Thoughts? Comments? Reactions? Suggestions? Discuss!

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