Early in 1995, Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg got together with a colleague he admired but had never met – Lars von Trier, who was about to make Breaking the Waves. The admiration was mutual: “Come on,” said von Trier. “Let's make a commune.” He meant this in the French sense of a covenant, and Vinterberg cheerfully obliged. “We sat down,” he recalls, “and within 30 minutes drew up the 'Dogma 95 Vow of Chastity.'”
This vow – 10 strict rules, ranging from “Shooting must be done on location” to “The director must not be credited” – is a leeringly arrogant, mischievous bit of makeshift tyranny that has resulted in two astonishing films, both of which premiered at Cannes in 1998. One was von Trier's Idiots, a politically incorrect farce too scarily brilliant to win many awards or friends. (October Films plans to release it next year.) The other was Vinterberg's The Celebration, a witty assault upon all hallowed notions of family life, whose contagious passion won it the Cannes Special Jury Prize.
Both films are startling, technically – both were shot hand-held on video, using available light and portable cameras that would cost about $1,500 to buy locally. But Vinterberg's film arguably cuts closer to the heart of Dogma 95's overriding goal, which is “to force the truth out of my characters and settings.” As The Celebration opens in the United States this month, Vinterberg – who is 29 and looks about 21 – takes his Dogma in smiling stride.
“We made the vow with a very great laugh,” he says, quick to agree that the rule forbidding personal taste is, “as a rule, impossible. But as an ambition . . .?”
The central character in The Celebration is Christian, a young man called upon to toast his father's 60th birthday at a big family gathering. He complies, but midspeech drops a bombshell. The room falls silent. For an instant, the world seems to stand still – then, just as suddenly, the buzz of chitchat strikes up and the festivities go on as if Christian hadn't said a word.
This intense repressedness is a consistent theme with Vinterberg. Last Round, an Oscar-nominated short feature he made in 1991, centers on a buoyant drinking party thrown in honor of a dying man. “It comes down to hiding,” says the director. “In Last Round, we repress the fact that he's going to die. That's why we feel it so much.” The same is true in The Celebration. There's been a suicide in the family, and Christian's anti-festive toast spells out the reason. The speedy, hand-held Dogma style, so evocative of home movies, reinforces the sense of immediacy and pressure driving the story.
If he had been making the film in a conventional way, Vinterberg says he would have represented the dead sister as a ghost – he even cast an actress in the part – but special effects don't square with Dogma principles (“You can't do a ghost hand-held,” he laughs), and the dead sister appears now for only a fraction of a second, in a dream. But such deliberate limits forced inspirations that Vinterberg is certain could've come no other way. With respect to the dead sister, this meant her presence is suggested only by an intensity in the acting and the cutting – a tension that comes to a dazzling fruition during a sequence when one of her sisters follows a set of playful clues through a hotel room, and finds a suicide note hidden in the chandelier.
“I didn't tell the crew or the actors where the little arrows were, or where the letter was hidden – so they actually had to play the game.”
He resorted to this tactic partly out of frustration. Dogma's devotion to existing location and available light radically frees the actor. “There is less waiting, all attention is on them, they no longer have to walk on marks. After the first week, they were so free that they became insecure. They wanted limits. It's like when you play cowboys and Indians as a kid. You do it full-hearted, but you have to have a set of rules if the playing is to be any good. As long as you have a set of rules, you can forget about everything else. You know where to go, when to hide, when to shoot.”
The result is enough to make one reach for a Handycam and take a Californian vow of chastity. Dogma West, anyone? “Do it! We're looking for Dogma colleagues. People seem to have the idea that it's some kind of elite project, but it's meant as the opposite.” Everybody is welcome, Vinterberg stresses, from anonymous beginners to acknowledged masters. “Lars von Trier isn't humble. He invited Kurosawa, before he died, to join Dogma. Bergman, too, and Coppola and Scorsese. I asked Scorsese as well, in Cannes. I don't think he'll sign up, but he liked the project. Our humble ambition is to make a wave out of it. Four Danish directors are not enough.”