It's not Dogme 95, although there are stylistic influences because this is Lars von Trier. The difference is that I like Dogme 95.
This is my first Lars von Trier film, which is clearly unforgivable on my part since he's one of the greatest working filmmakers today. (The man who made this claim is Lars von Trier.) Other things that have been said include "Mr von Trier, I despise you," by Bjork every day of filming this movie, after which she'd spit at him. Incidentally von Trier had originally been going to play a cameo role here, that of the man who shouts at Bjork in a cinema, but in the end he didn't do so because their working relationship was so bad that he was worried of losing control and overacting.
It's brave, I'll give it that. No one's ever accused von Trier of not having balls. It's a 140-minute musical in which Bjork, not hitherto known as a movie actress, suffers so nobly and unrelentingly that it's almost comedic. The story is sentimental tosh that's set in 1964, but feels like a silent-era melodrama. It's... actually, it's not of interest. If I'd been taking it seriously, I might now be getting excited about what it's saying about the American criminal justice system and the death penalty. However I didn't. The film tripped my I Don't Care switch. Apart from anything else, I'd always been under the impression that executing someone in America took twenty years and enough money to build them a hotel complex on the moon, but von Trier gets out of that one on the grounds of (a) 1964 and (b) Bjork's character being so saintly and self-sacrificing that, gosh darn it, she just doesn't want her life saved.
The reason it's not Dogme 95, despite the cheap hand-held cameras, is that the Rules of Chastity don't allow a historical setting, violence or non-diegetic music. However it does capture that Dogme 95 feel of "why am I watching this?" pointlessness at the beginning. I watched Bjork getting into her amateur dramatics and having a troubled relationship with her son, to which my reaction was "this is going to be a long 140 minutes." Eighteen minutes into it, I was surfing online while watching. This for me is a record.
The acting's good, though. von Trier tends to attract big names. Here he's got Catherine Deneuve in a supporting role, while especially given that she doesn't even claim to be an actress, Bjork is really rather good. This won her a bunch of Best Actress prizes, including at Cannes, even though Deneuve and others have apparently described her performance as "feeling rather than acting". Me, I think she pulls off a role that could have crushed her like a bug and keeps her character watchable despite everything, to the extent that you could almost say she carries the film.
She didn't even look like Bjork, oddly enough. She's older and less pixie-like. You can tell it's her when she sings, though.
As for the musical numbers, they're not bad. They're not traditionally toe-tapping, but they work in their way and one of them got Oscar-nominated for Best Song. The first one doesn't show up for forty minutes, mind you.
The courtroom scenes are particularly silly, but this gives them more entertainment value. You'll see everything coming a mile away as von Trier goes on stacking the odds against poor tragic Bjork, but you'll have to laugh at the evil prosecutor's fondness for the word "communistic". Well, it is 1964. Curiously though, despite being set in America, the movie was filmed in Sweden.
If you're thinking of watching this film, don't. Instead watch Memories of Matsuko
. Both are insanely unrelenting tragedies done as a musical, but the difference is that Memories of Matsuko
is being funny deliberately and has all those freaky stylish things going on with Disney-style animation and technicolor. That film was unforgettable. In fairness this one for many people seems just as unforgettable, but their elaborations upon that fact include "I hate this movie", "Might even be my least favourite film of all time" and "The laughable nature of the grimness was one of the main things I hated." What's it's not is entertaining. It's not even trying to be. If you can manage not to get pushed away by the plot, you'll probably see it as a harrowing evisceration of justice and the American Dream. If you're one of those, then you'll probably want to watch the two earlier films in von Trier's "Golden Heart Trilogy", i.e. Breaking the Waves (1996) and The Idiots (1998)
Me, I thought this was silly, but deliberately so. If we assume (generously) that von Trier isn't a raving lunatic, then the assumption would be that this is a deconstruction of Hollywood movies. This wouldn't be dissimilar to his goals with Dogme 95, in fact. You wouldn't do all this by accident. I still prefer the way Memories of Matsuko
does it, though.