Same new thing

Film byJonathan Romney

Festen (The Celebration) is a new film by the young Danish director Thomas Vinterberg - although in theory we ought not to know this, since it's supposedly an anonymous work. Nevertheless, Vinterberg has been busy on the PR circuit, not so much presenting his film as defending the rationale behind it. For Festen is the first broadside from Dogma 95, a collective of Danish film-makers, including the inveterate provocateur Lars von Trier. The group, echoing Francois Truffaut's polemic of the 1950s, describes itself as "a rescue action . . . with the expressed goal of countering 'certain tendencies' in the cinema today".

Dogma declares itself at war with illusionism, with what it calls "cosmeticised" cinema, and with auteurism: "The individual film will be decadent by definition." Hence the anonymity, and the image of a quasi-monastic fraternity working under ten restrictive rules called the "Vow of Chastity". These rules have received rather more publicity than the manifesto that accompanies them and which, if you read between the lines, has distinctly reactionary ideological undertones in its quasi-religious preoccupation with truth and purity. Bear in mind, though, that von Trier has been producing such playfully fiery mock-fulminations since way back.

The rules are essentially a recipe for realist simplicity. Shooting must be done on location; the camera must be hand-held; genre movies are not acceptable. Oddest of all, rule ten specifies that the director must not be credited, and must agree to refrain from personal taste. This is surely the most challenging aspect of Dogma. Imagine a cinema in which directors were obliged to bend their will to that of the collective, or even to the demands of film language itself. The result might be a political cinema motivated by social rather than commercial considerations, as attempted by collectives such as the Amber Production Team in Britain. Alternatively, the arbitrary rigour of a set of linguistic rules could generate wild new forms, as with the game-playing French literary group OuLiPo.

Anonymity, however, is one rule that the Dogmatists contrive to flout. Vinterberg and von Trier are openly recognised as the directors of Festen and Idiots (Dogma #1 and #2 respectively) and have publicised them widely. Some members even claim that the Vow is nothing more than an amusing way to rediscover the low-budget basics. This seems a disappointing step-down from the promised hard-line rigour: firebrand polemic is woefully absent from cinema these days, even if it only serves to start arguments.

The Dogma film most likely to cause storms on its own merits is von Trier's Idiots, released here in May. It's about a collective of young people who pretend to be mentally disturbed in order to wind up the bourgeoisie; the analogy with Dogma itself is inescapable. The film is an all-comers freakout in which the actors play, cry, fight and, most controversially, fuck - a neo-hippy happening that in some ways militates against the idea of authorial control, but in others simply enhances von Trier's reputation as a sensationalist ringmaster.

The far more accomplished Festen also uses the community model, involving some 50 players in the story of a family reunion in a country chateau. The technique is dazzlingly abrasive: Vinterberg and his cameraman, Anthony Dod Mantle, use the camera as a phantom guest at the banquet, breathing into characters' faces, peering down from stairwells, wheeling round in frantic pans. The claim to transparent realism is subverted by the image's harsh tactility, transferred from video to film, with the light ranging from outdoor glare to claustrophobic candlelit gloom.

But it's hard to tell how strictly necessary the style is to the subject matter. The low-budget shooting conditions clearly brought out the cast's spontaneity, and the technique really heightens the intimacy, as though you were trapped in the mad clan's video diary. Yet beneath the style, there's a trad-itional well-made drama that could well have been filmed more conventionally without any loss of intensity. We could be watching Alan Ayckbourn at his darkest, as the blithely complacent family react to the elder son's horrific accusations by raising their glasses in another witless toast. For all Festen's brilliance, it lacks the feeling of inevitability, the sense that the rules made it assume this shape and no other.

How other film-makers will meet the challenge remains to be seen, but Dogma has started something. The group already has its acolytes in America: Harmony Korine (of Gummo and Kids notoriety) and former Warhol sidekick Paul Morrissey have signed up for future projects. Industry pundits claim that Festen's success presages a digital revolution in independent cinema, although the Vow doesn't actually stipulate video (Dogma #3, by Soren Kragh Jacobsen, is shot conventionally on film). But you wonder how long the shock of the back-to-basics new will last. Dogma will probably function just fine as a brand-name bait for funding, but as either methodology or ideology it's nowhere near as radical as it seems. It would take more extreme or more arbitrary rules to create a genuinely new film language, rather than this bare-bones verite.

Still, such polemical cheek isn't to be sniffed at. Dogma has already issued a challenge to Steven Spielberg to join the cause. It could only do him a world of good. But it wouldn't harm Lars von Trier, either, to get off his realist kick and try his hand at Jurassic Park 3 in return.

"Festen" (18) opens 5 March nationwide