L'enfant - dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne - 2005 - Belgium/France
United 93 - dir. Paul Greengrass - 2006 - France/UK/USAOne could state that cinema vérité stems from the long history of neo-realism. Cinema vérité has become the neo-neo-realism, stripping down films to bare essentials, leaving special effects and camera trickery in the proverbial closet. It would be easy to make a connection to the Dogme movement that was so popular in the late-90s, but this would be an inaccurate comparison. To equate films like L’enfant and United 93 to Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (Idioterne) and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (Festen) would be a rash association, based solely on method and surface. What these films have in common stops at the exterior, from their out-of-focus, wobbly handheld cameras to natural, unflattering lighting. I can’t make any sort of blanket statement about the entirety of the Dogme collection, which includes a number of titles never released in the United States and from various countries, but in relation to the Danes, specifically Von Trier, there’s an unmistakable omnipotent power at work. Roger Ebert rather expertly pointed out in his review of L’enfant that the film exists in a world where “God does not intervene and the directors do not mistake themselves for God.” In a film like this or Paul Greengrass’ masterful United 93, worlds function without this higher power. In a way, they’re godless films where actions progress in a functional cause-and-effect and where supreme interaction never exposes itself.
To call Von Trier’s films Catholic seems a bit silly considering their subject matter, but upon closer examination, Von Trier quite literally assumes the role of this God in nearly every one of his films. His voice, and perhaps his laugh, can be heard and seen within the frames of his films, a concrete stamp of authorship. Both L’enfant and United 93 have a stylization that recalls the ever-present auteur theory, but in varying ways. Those familiar with the Dardenne brothers’ work (Rosetta, The Son [Le fils], La promesse) will quickly recognize their signature vérité style, as well as Jérémie Renier who also played the lead in La promesse as a young boy. Unedited moments of character silence and natural sound fill the frames of L’enfant like all of their previous work. For Greengrass, the handheld camerawork recalls his breakthrough film, Bloody Sunday, which painfully depicted the events of an Irish massacre in the 1970s, and even The Bourne Supremacy. Both L’enfant and United 93 beautifully fit and compliment the directors’ prior works, but the distinction between their films and those of the Danes is still radically opposing. L’enfant and United 93 exist in very separate worlds, despite their aesthetic parallels.
What Von Trier and Vinterberg wanted to accomplish with the Dogme was a fuck-you to the artificial glory of the Hollywood film. They wanted the removal of the bells-and-whistles Hollywood is known for to reveal a greater truth about humanity and character, but their strife proved futile. Reportedly, Von Trier reflected on the Dogme movement as an elitist bickering that hilariously turned into a genre on its own. Von Trier only contributed one film, The Idiots, that followed the rules of the movement, though employed a visual style and truth-emphasis similar with Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. Yet, each of his films, including The Idiots, resounded with his name, his ideas, and most notably his criticisms. Whether these ideas are his true beliefs or if he’s just playing the role of devil’s advocate doesn’t matter. Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark are films where a divine power has tinkered with the lives of the characters like a puppeteer. Von Trier is kind of like the little boy who places people and objects on the tracks of toy trains, disrupting the constant trek of the plastic vehicle to see how it erupts. The worlds of L’enfant and United 93 do not function as those films do. In L’enfant, the directors introduce us to Bruno (Renier) and Sonia (Deborah François) a week after they’ve had their first child. The film serves as a window into the days that follow, as the two struggle to find money and eventually sell their baby. The consequences of Bruno’s illegal sale of the baby and his shady business transactions come naturally. He’s an impulsive figure who carries out his actions without thought, only to recognize the severity of these actions once things go awry. The things that go wrong are not the metaphorical hurtles on the train track but plausible consequences for the spontaneity and disregard of his decisions. Bruno is not clearly paying for his sins in the Christian idea of repentance, but through the carelessness of his dubious dealings.
United 93 plays like L’enfant in its structure of time. The film functions like a window in time and recognizable history, shot nearly in real time just before the horrendous events of September 11th. The film captures a variety of characters, from air traffic employees, military officials, victims of the tragedy, and the terrorists themselves. We’re given no discernable background about the individuals or even reasoning for why the events are taking place. It’s understood that the terrorists are of the Muslim faith and are carrying out these events as a pledge to their God, but Greengrass never tries to explain, justify, or crucify these men for their actions. That he shows them as fallible, emotionally-torn characters is a commendable decision, though it’s effectively brief in exposure. As in L’enfant, the removal of both conventional narrative and accepted cinematic motifs in United 93 washes away the looming sentimentality that one might expect from a film of this nature.
That both films are told in a matter-of-fact way about pressing issues in no way reflects the laziness or invisibility of the creator. The final fifteen minutes of United 93 are some of the most riveting, intense cinematic moments you may ever see committed to the screen. The scene in L’enfant where Bruno hides in a neighboring room of an abandoned apartment to complete the transaction of selling his baby recalls some of the most dangerous, suspenseful moments Hitchcock has ever created. The audience is never given a glimpse of the individuals taking part in the business deal because the window of L’enfant doesn’t open in that direction. The Dardenne brothers are focused on Bruno, his silent tension, anxiety, and possible conflicting reassurance during this scene. They don’t expect you to understand or even feel the internal struggle Bruno might be going through; they just want you to experience it from where you sit. United 93 and L’enfant assuredly recognize their own distant nature. Film is hardly something that is user-interactive (though hammy DVD features like those on the new Final Destination disc are trying to prove otherwise), and Greengrass and the Dardennes acknowledge this, taking a step back, avoiding their own menacing interference, and allowing the horrors of the world to simply persist. Especially in Dogville and its sequel Manderlay, Von Trier always has something to say about these evils. In L’enfant and United 93, the evils exist without explanation, justification, or deterioration. These evils present themselves in both the theist and godless worlds of the films discussed here but in variable degrees of “realness.” This imbalance between the films in no way suggests a superiority in quality of any of the films, as they all remarkably work within their own right. However, to carelessly lump all these films that strive for cinematic realism together would be a foolish mistake.