John Roberts has said much of relevance in his acute assessment of Dogme 95.footnote1 Still, he is not quite free of one error to which all reviewers of Von Trier’s films seem to have been prone. He has by and large accepted Von Trier’s claim that he is innocent of theory, and Dogme 95’s ideology of ‘no-ideology’. Simple things first. If we consider Festen (The Party) and Mifune to be Dogme 95 films—as Roberts and others do—then the Dogme 95 Manifesto is not just technical, formal and unpolitical in character (as Roberts rightly notes), it must also be regarded as non-binding, for between them Mifune and Festen break almost every one of its rules—with the single exception of the unstated rule to shun any political statement. Actually, while competently made, Festen and Mifune are mainstream cinematic fare for the once-softly-radical-now-comfortably-bourgeois-and-postcommunist citizens of our high capitalist times. Reduced to its thematic core, what is Festen but a complex soap opera; and what is Mifune but the thinking man’s Pretty Woman?
Let us take a more serious effort, Von Trier’s Idioterne (The Idiots), which shows a group of young commune-dwellers simulating mental disability by ‘spassing out’—acting spastic—in various public places, and attracting twitchily PC responses from those around them. Roberts reads the film as a ‘critique of identity politics itself’. But if we consider the reception of the film in Denmark, we get a rather different picture. At two different screenings—one in Danish alone, and one with English subtitles—the same responses recurred; and were also implicit or explicit in many of the reviews.
First, there was laughter—of different kinds. Dominant, at least to my ears, was what I would dub the ‘covert laughter’ of people finding they could again laugh publicly at things that they had been trained not to find funny: the symptoms of mental and physical disability and their social effects. If Von Trier had made a comedy about someone who was handicapped, he would not have found as receptive a public as those that watched the slapstick farces of our black-and-white past. Most of us have learnt to feel that such mockery is distasteful and wrong, just as we have learnt (over the ages) not to consume other human beings, challenge opponents to duels, and so on. But if you present ‘normal’ people playing mental and physical disabilities, you provide an excuse for indulging in some cultured, covertly cruel laughter. Watching some of these people watch The Idiots, I was struck by the thought that the title of Von Trier’s film might allude not to the actors but to members of the audience. For such a gambit is not new to Von Trier’s art, as we shall see.
This particular sort of laughter was not always unconscious, though it was never addressed by reviewers. Instead, what reviewers and filmgoers discussed was the way in which The Idiots satirizes ‘political correctness’, connecting it to Denmark’s supposedly ‘communal ethos’. In fact, Roberts’s remark that ‘Von Trier himself grew up in a commune’ attributes greater visibility and coherence to Danish communes than is justified by facts. These are not Israeli Kibbutzim. It might even be argued that Danish communes have been less vehicles of community and social democracy than of bourgeois hegemony in a small, homogeneous nation which could easily transform its ‘native’ proletariat into a kind of quasi-bourgeoisie. Certainly, it is striking how harshly the only substantial ‘replacement proletariat’ in Denmark today—coloured immigrants—are actually treated by the state and by communes alike. Whatever its international noises about human rights, Denmark has some of the most draconian laws in Europe dealing with immigrants and refugees. Thus the tendency to see—and celebrate—The Idiots as an attack on ‘political correctness’ evokes another kind of complicit laughter. It is easier to mock this correctness in an exaggerated, enacted situation than to do so openly in real life. But one should realize what such elbowing and nudging implies. Assaults on ‘political correctness’ in the United States have all too often been attacks on anyone who finds racist, sexist or homophobic language offensive. Reactions in Denmark have been even more retrograde. Here ‘political correctness’ has been dismissed as an American fad, without the slightest sense of any potential for linguistic contention in the Danish language. Inuit are still called ‘Eskimo’ at leading academic conferences, and a court has reportedly ruled that the Danish equivalent of ‘nigger’ (pronounced similarly) can be used in public discourse as it does not have any negative connotations. No educated Dane would bat an eyelid at descriptions of members of a women’s handball team as girls, though male teams naturally consist of men.
The Idiots offers, however, a clue to a deeper strand in Von Trier’s cinema. In the series/film that made his name, the first four episodes of Riget (The Kingdom), one can see a device developing that he has since put to work in a range of different settings—the now widespread postmodern ploy of aporia, or ‘unresolved doubt’. The mysterious happenings and voices in the hospital of The Kingdom have both material and spiritual ‘explanations’, objective or subjective origins, between which the film leaves interpretation calculatedly suspended. This is the same manoeuvre we find in the drowning-that-is-a-miracle towards the end of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, in Raju’s sensation of rain in R. K. Narayan’s Guide, in the narrative of Kieslowski’s Double Vie de Veronique and Three Colours: Red, and incidents in a host of other books and films. Between mystical and mundane readings, the issue is deliberately left unresolved.
With Breaking the Waves, however, Von Trier ventured beyond this kind of aporia. The film itself is divided into ‘chapters’, signalled by intertitle sequences of lush, picture-postcard shots and soft, romantic music, while the drama depicts, against the bleak moral and physical backdrop of a small Calvinist village on the northeast coast of Scotland, the story of a woman who sacrifices herself body and soul for her man. When her husband, a Dane paralysed by an explosion on an oil-rig, begs her to take someone else as a lover, so he can have at least a vicarious erotic life, the heroine nobly complies with a series of affairs, weeping as she goes. As in The Kingdom, the tale hovers in a fashionably ambiguous atmosphere, and could have been left there. But Von Trier does not leave it there. The husband recovers, the heroine dies and, at a desolate funeral, the local church damns her for her sins. The husband, however, steals her body back for a free and humane burial at sea. At the end of this ceremony, he is roused by his friend: something strange is taking place. There is no land or ship within radar distance and yet they can hear the tolling of church bells.
Hearing being a partly subjective sensation and radar not foolproof, Breaking the Waves could have ended there—and we would have been left with a familiar aporia. But no: the camera pulls back, high into the sky, beyond the clouds, to show huge bells hanging from ‘heaven’ and tolling for all they are worth. One might think: who would not burst out laughing at this denouement? Nothing could be more mistaken. Audiences—down to the last macho man—react with deep and euphoric emotion, handkerchiefs much in evidence. Now, if you distrust the kind of life that the heroine of Breaking the Waves aspires to—a life of sacrifice to her husband—you could connect the heavenly bells to the schmalz of the film’s section-breaks, and take the ending as a radical slap in the face of those who accept the values of the story line. If you do not do so, you would appear to be willy-nilly committing yourself to the ideology of a Christian heaven and a male-centred universe. The fact, of course, is that most people who found the film’s ending deeply touching and not at all satirical do not consider themselves either believers or male chauvinists. Yet if they react partly (vestigially?) from such reflexes, Von Trier’s art allows them to avoid facing the glare of these ideologies in the open. In its own way, this is a response that resembles the laughter and remarks which greeted The Idiots.