Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Dogville Confessions



Dogs and Deer : Denmark 2003 : Sami Martin SAIF : 52 mins

When people around me have it bad, I have it better than ever.
Lars von Trier, interview with Danish radio, 7th Sept. 2002.*

Dogville Confessions is a documentary about Lars von Trier and the making of Dogville. Or should that be Lars von Trier and the un-making of Dogville? Or perhaps Dogville and the un-making of Lars von Trier? In fact, un-masking would be a more accurate term. Because anyone watching Dogville Confessions blind, knowing nothing about von Trier, would surely be amazed that this man is so often described as one of current worldwide arthouse cinemas most eminent and accomplished figures.

And they’d probably be staggered to discover he was named Best European Director for Dogville at the 2003 European Film Awards ahead of Michael Winterbottom (In this World), Wolfgang Becker (Good Bye, Lenin!), Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Distant) and Marco Tullio Giordana (The Best of Youth). If Dogville did deserve a prize for directing, meanwhile, on this evidence von Trier should split it with his leading lady, Nicole Kidman, whose wide experience of moviemaking proves crucial during those numerous on-set occasions when her so-called director loses his way.

To say the least, von Trier emerges from Dogville Confessions somewhat badly. Watching Saifs documentary its surprising that Dogville was even completed at all, so unsteady was von Triers hand on the tiller. Working with by far his starriest cast ever, the director seems visibly unnerved by the presence of Kidman, Paul Bettany, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall and, most of all, Lauren Bacall, who so awes the director that he’s constantly scurrying off in search of his preferred sedative, Valium. Bacall, meanwhile, seems understandably bemused by the half-arsed goings-on in the Swedish sound-stage where Dogville was filmed. Shes too much of a pro to make a fuss, but her facial expressions say it all: It was never like this with Mr Hawks or Mr Huston!

Dogville Confessions recalls the legendary documentary supposedly shot by Max Von Sydows wife on the set of Minority Report, which apparently shows Steven Spielberg in a less than flattering light. But whereas the Von Sydow footage has never been properly circulated, Dogville Confessions is the official making-of film, and, while it won’t be commercially released, is proving a popular one-off item for arthouses and festivals. Von Trier presumably approves then again, he does seem to operate on the basis that all publicity is good publicity, and that everything he does is part of some vast, post-modern cosmic joke he’s perpetrating against Cinema in general and the director-as-star phenomenon in particular. Any reasonably producer would have put the brakes on long ago, he muses, but apparently not

As Dogville is such an experimental production, perhaps one shouldn’t judge von Trier too harshly. But the director seems to approach the whole creative process as a series of daft pranks and games. Watching his movies (especially his hilarious masterpiece, Dancer in the Dark) many viewers will be tempted to agree. But when his script calls for a harrowing rape-scene, von Triers gigglingly childish manner seems grotesquely tasteless, even perhaps imbecilic: the audience is grateful when he’s politely reined-in by Kidman, whose own approach to the sequence is rather more mature, since her character is the one who’s being violated.

There are many such embarrassing/piercing/enthralling/informative moments in Dogville Confessions, but the documentary is nevertheless a frustratingly missed opportunity. The big gimmick is that von Trier installed a Big Brother-style diary room in a corner of the set where his actors could go and blow off steam. We get tantalisingly brief clips from the resulting footage with Bettany especially impatient of von Triers – and it does seem that all the really good stuff has been left out.

Instead, director Saif indulges some ill-advised arty interludes in which a spectral deer is seen walking through the set (often to the accompaniment of noodlingly atmospheric muzak), or an unidentified, silhouetted figure clearly von Trier himself is shown viciously denouncing von Trier as a fraud. A little of this goes a very long way, especially when we could be seeing more of the fascinating on-set footage, or more of the video-room confessions. Dogville Confessions could and should have been considerably longer: which is cruelly ironic, considering how drastically the 3-hour Dogville outstays its welcome.

25th December, 2003
(seen on VHS, Sunderland, 9th December 2003 thanks to Fusun Eriksen)

* Lars von Trier : interviews (ed. Jan Lumholdt, University Press of Mississippi, 2003) p170

by Neil Young