Ten Things He Knows About Dogme

Secrets and screwballs: Anders W. Berthelsen and Jesper Asholt in Mifune

I, Keith Harris, do solemnly swear that the following is true about Mifune:

1. Like all films that receive the Dogme 95 imprimatur (e.g., The Celebration, The Idiots), Mifune is founded on a gimmick. Fortunately, it's a priceless whopper of a gimmick: The ten rules encapsulated by Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in their notorious Vow of Chastity declare that what you see onscreen was created under a specific set of conditions (the strict use of natural lighting and handheld camerawork, the avoidance of genre conventions and auteurist tics, etc.). That makes it a magical, one-of-a-kind experience--like juggling or spoon-bending or Bobby McFerrin. The Dogme creed implies that something beyond what you see onscreen supposedly makes what you actually do see unique, or at least distinctive. Oh, my, we gasp. That woman is really peeing on that carpet!

2. As in The Idiots and The Celebration (not to mention the Dogme-certified julien donkey-boy), this gimmick is further keyed to sensationalist thematic concerns, such as the ridiculous exploits of the mentally challenged and the exhumation of embarrassing, often incestuous family secrets. Mifune begins with city-slicker hotshot Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) shrewdly marrying into his boss's clan. Then his father's untimely death reveals his hidden rural upbringing and retarded brother. Unwilling to care for the spastic Rud (Jesper Asholt), Kresten hires a housekeeper named Liva (Iben Hjejle), who's actually a hooker gunning for less sloppy employment. Soon Kresten and Liva do something they both admit is "trite"--they fall in love.

3. Like all gimmicks, Dogme's chastity pretends to be self-justifying--i.e., this process is purifying film, freeing art from personal preference in the name of Truth. In fact, it requires just as much justification as any aesthetic (and perhaps more), and that justification is the finished product, the film itself. Now, that's an observation, not a value judgment--there's nothing wrong with jumping on top of a table and screaming, "Look at me!" Still, you'd better make it worthwhile for me to turn my head.

4. Like its predecessors, Mifune makes it more than worthwhile. Rather than attempting to resolve the contradictions inherent in their theories of hyperrealism, the directors revel in those contradictions in order to play a game with the audience. Either one's critical quibbles reveal one's bourgeois disposition ("You can't handle unflinching reality!"), or one's critical quibbles wind up validating the Dogme rules ("That's not a Dogme film!" "Oh, so you're admitting that there is such a thing!"). And, by ending happily, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune ups the ante on the bet, demanding an answer to whether there can indeed be such a thing as screwball verité.

5. Sorry--I didn't mean to suggest that Mifune actually belongs to Kragh-Jacobsen: Dogme directors are supposedly uncredited. But each director thus far has been quite well publicized. And despite its cant about the discredited auteur, Dogme, by replacing "studio trickery" with mighty authenticity, in fact reifies the role of the filmmaker. He (yes, they've all been men, so far) battles the elements--lighting, background noise, actors--in an attempt to purify his warrior soul. Dogme films are manly films, eschewing the fripperies of genre or artificial aids, and their directors have implicitly spoken about them as such. (By the way, the Dogme boys can be seen pontificating about work in The Name of This Film Is Dogme95, which the Independent Film Channel cablecasts on June 5 at 9:00 p.m. And Oak Street Cinema is conducting a "World of Dogme" retrospective on three consecutive Wednesdays and Thursdays, beginning May 24 with von Trier's proto-Dogme film Breaking the Waves, and continuing with The Celebration and julien donkey-boy.)

6. Dogme flicks also delineate a sharp distinction between do-it-yourself and anyone-can-do-it. Vinterberg and von Trier are no noble savages: They're self-conscious, accomplished craftsmen delving into craftless primitivism and shocking subject matter for inspiration. Kragh-Jacobsen's professed model, meanwhile, is MTV's Unplugged series--which is a tellingly honest analogue. By creating an artificial state of nature, Dogme allows the directors to show their stuff.

7. Unlike the two preceding Dogme films, Kragh-Jacobsen demonstrates that the handheld camera needn't be used to inspire nausea. While it isn't conventionally framed, Mifune isn't artlessly jostled, either.

8. Nor does Kragh-Jacobsen confuse verité with austerity. The interior shots are grainy, but the exteriors are often sumptuous.

9. Mifune reveals just how much we rely on the rules of genre to tell us when to laugh or how to feel. Is a naked retarded man being hosed down funny? It all depends, doesn't it? As Dennis Lim has noted disparagingly in the Village Voice, elements of both Rain Man and Pretty Woman do get tossed into the Dogme Cuisinart. But the fact that those elements register differently in Mifune further points out how much we rely on context. Situations are not inherently funny, or sad, or threatening, or uplifting--which is sort of uplifting.

10. Mifune demonstrates that while Kragh-Jacobsen disapproves of Hollywood's means, he's sympathetic to its ends. A film demonstrating Liva's truism that "Life is like one long turd that you have to take a bite of every day" would certainly be more "realistic," no? Nevertheless, with as much charity as chastity, Mifune consecrates its exercise in cinematic purification to the rather sweet notion that screwed-up people deserve happy endings, too. And so do we screwed-up aesthetes, who are most in need of purification.


Mifune starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.

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