Danish Cinema Cuts to the Chaste
Sunday, January 11, 2004
Denmark's self-appointed cinematic bad boy is at it again.
Lars von Trier made a splash -- when does he not set out to make a splash? -- at the Cannes Film Festival last year when he presented his latest release, "Dogville." The film -- not so much a film as one of his signature provocations, really -- features a quality ensemble cast (Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, Paul Bettany, Philip Baker Hall, Nicole Kidman) in an often fascinating, just as often confounding, cinematic experiment. Eschewing conventional locations and sets, von Trier filmed "Dogville" on a bare stage, indicating sets and some props with chalk outlines. The story, a Depression-era parable about a beautiful drifter named Grace (Kidman) whose arrival in a Colorado mining town sets off an escalating series of moral crises, is related in a highly pitched theatrical style, combining the pastoral intimacy of "Our Town" with the bold, confrontational aesthetic of a Brecht play. "Dogville" will be shown today at the National Gallery of Art, as part of a two-month series of Danish films at the museum. (The film will arrive at local theaters in the spring.)
"Dogville" represents the latest of von Trier's dialogues with American history and Hollywood film genre. In 1996, he made his version of a 1950s-type melodrama with "Breaking the Waves"; two years ago, he made "Dancer in the Dark," a decidedly personal take on the MGM musical. Aside from a brief burst of film noir gunfire, in "Dogville" von Trier doesn't quote filmmakers as much as other American artists: His staging -- not to mention his concern with bourgeois moral hypocrisy -- is straight out of the WPA-era theater; his characters might have been photographed by Walker Evans for "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"; his camera style, which favors close-ups and searingly long, quiet takes, owes more to such live television shows as "Playhouse 90" than to feature films.
Yet "Dogville" also perpetuates some of von Trier's cardinal obsessions (and limitations). For example, as in nearly every one of his other films, in "Dogville" he seems to take an almost sadistic delight in torturing his lead female, both as a character and as an actress. Here, Grace and Kidman are put through their paces with the leering cruelty of a malign ringmaster: Grace starts out as a strong, morally centered protagonist and is rewarded for her lack of guile by being collared like a dog, then chained to a huge wheel, which she drags across the stage in martyred lurches.
For all of "Dogville's" strengths -- its powerful performances, the ingenious staging, how quickly and completely the audience accepts its stylized reality -- its take-home message is, ultimately, measly. And this is where von Trier's limitations come in. As in so many of his previous films, the director goes to outlandish, often shamelessly manipulative, lengths to inform viewers of a simplistic truth they didn't exactly need to be reminded of in the first place -- in this case, that greed, dishonesty and pious self-deception are bad, bad, bad. The critic David Thomson might have put it most succinctly in his Autobiographical Dictionary of Film when he wrote of von Trier, "He has wanton skills, a greedy eye, and a taste for lush morbidity." The result, Thomson concludes, is "a lesson in how hollow aesthetic virtuosity can be."
In fact, over a 20-year career von Trier (he added the "von," by the way, while he was in film school) has emerged less as a filmmaker than as a consummate and canny showman. In 1993, he formed Zentropa Entertainments, a production company that has since made more than 100 films, music videos and TV shows. Most famously, in 1995 von Trier and his contemporaries formed Dogme 95, a consortium of filmmakers who agreed to make movies with no artificial lighting or scenery, no musical score, only hand-held cameras and no authorial credit for the director. Dogme's manifesto, often called the "Vows of Chastity," received immediate publicity, along with a hue and cry from filmmakers and filmgoers alike. (At this juncture Thomson was impelled to write that in forming Dogme, von Trier "added bogusness to his vulgarity.")
The proof was in the plodding: Although there have been a few genuinely absorbing and entertaining Dogme movies ("The Celebration" and "Italian for Beginners" leap to mind), most of them, including von Trier's own tiresome exercise "The Idiots," have been little more than pretentious, self-conscious film-school essays that have received publicity not because of any inherent interest or artistry but because their directors have usually accompanied their releases with tortured mea culpas about the vows that they broke, such as pulling back a curtain to increase a room's light.
Von Trier and Co. have always had their tongues firmly situated in their cheeks, of course: Dogme 95 was only a hip young Danish form of old-fashioned ballyhoo (or, as the director John Waters has often been heard to crack, "Before Dogme 95, when was the last time you heard anyone talking about Danish cinema?").
That's precisely the question the National Gallery has set out to answer. Subtitled "The Golden Age Returns," its five-week series of Danish films seeks to remind viewers that von Trier and such similarly celebrated contemporaries as Per Fly ("The Inheritance"), Jorgen Leth ("New Scenes From America"), Jesper Jargil ("The Humiliated") and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen ("Mifune") are simply a new incarnation of a hugely influential national cinematic tradition, both aesthetically and commercially. Whereas the first four weeks of the series will feature new and recent work by Danish directors, the last will be devoted to their forebears, the filmmakers of Denmark's silent era of the 1910s and '20s who together built a muscular indigenous film industry (Nordisk Film, the Danish company founded in 1906, is the oldest continuously running studio in the world). "The Golden Age Returns" will feature some rarely seen gems, among them August Blom's "Temptations of a Great City" (1910) and Carl-Theodor Dreyer's "Once Upon a Time," a restored print of a 1922 film that was lost in the Nordisk archive until 1964.
In Blom's work especially, it becomes evident that von Trier is by no means the first bad boy of Danish cinema. In "The White Slave" (1910) and "The Four Devils" (1911), Blom engages in the sort of sensationalism and formal daring for which Danish cinema was famous -- or notorious -- in the new 20th century. As its title suggests, "The White Slave" features a woman in jeopardy, kidnapped by miscreants who subject her to more perils than Pauline, all bearing just a slight whiff of perversion; "The Four Devils" is a story about children abducted by a circus trapeze artist who grooms them to be a famous high-wire act. Breathtaking stunts, ill-fated love and tragedy ensue. Indeed it was common during this first golden age in Denmark for filmmakers to make films ripped from the headlines, confronting -- or, perhaps more accurately, titillating -- audiences with crime, sexuality and human vice that make the Dogme films look tame.
Von Trier and his contemporaries can be congratulated for putting Danish cinema back on the map; with the generosity of Denmark's government, a national film school and the activist, enterprising spirit of the Danish Film Institute, they have succeeded in creating one of the few European film cultures that can stand up against the hegemony of Hollywood. Nordisk lives! So does Zentropa! In your face, Disney! But for all the commercial traction they've managed to gain, both at home and internationally, whether these new artists truly live up to the golden age of the silents is up to audiences, who sadly will see more of the former than the latter at the National Gallery over the next several weeks.
Still, with luck the series will help put the newbies' "radical" innovations in proper context. Perhaps best to defer once more to Thomson, who broke into unbridled chuckles recently when asked to consider the frequent comparisons of Dreyer and von Trier. "Carl Dreyer was a really great director," he said simply. "And von Trier is a really bad one."