Dogora Review

The regularity of a new Patrice Leconte film every year is something that can usually be relied upon. We can also usually rely on the familiarity of the subject matter – a romantic melodrama between social misfits – and the professional ease with which he delivers these entertaining films. We can also usually rely on the contempt of the French film critics for his work. This year Leconte has served up a film that has surprised many, couldn’t be more different from Confidences Trop Intimes released earlier in 2004, but has still left critics and audiences divided. It also confirms the impression of Leconte as a workaholic who, even when he takes a holiday, he can’t keep a camera out of his hands.

In a brief text introduction seen in the trailer, but no longer in the film on DVD (although it is reproduced on the DVD cover), Leconte explains that he has always dreamed of making a film without a plot, without actors and without a script. Inspired by a visit to Cambodia, Dogora is the film Leconte always wanted to make and it’s probably his most personal film yet. With only a musical soundtrack set to fast-moving montage of images of life in Cambodia, Dogora is very much in the tradition of Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke (Koyaanisqatsi, Baraka), but at the same time the language and filmmaking style is very much Leconte’s own.

It’s difficult to make a film without any kind of narrative. In Baraka, Fricke explored spirituality around the world, while Reggio in his Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi) explored man’s relationship with nature and technology in the developing world. Leconte appears to have no such agenda here. Focussing solely on the people of Cambodia, Dogora is all about the lives of everyday people – eating, sleeping, working, playing and travelling. Images of poverty are there – women working in a sweatshop, people scavenging in a rubbish dump – but the film doesn’t use the images to make any other point than this is how some people live and by showing this thereby throwing a reflection on our own lives. Expected images of Angkor Wat and the normal tourist brochure images of Cambodia are noticeable by not so much their absence, as by the brief indirect allusion made to them.

Filmed on Panavision HD Cam with Leconte himself helming the camera, the scope imagery looks stunning, bursting with colour, life and movement, the telephoto lenses used to great effect, the subjects of his photography never seeming to be aware of the camera’s gaze on them. On the one or two occasions where people become aware of the camera on them, it is used to humorous effect. In a formal aspect, it resembles Leconte’s style in Félix et Lola, the camera darting rapidly around, searching, exploring, probing, pulling into close-ups of faces of people in the street, trying to delve into the inner thoughts of its subjects during contemplative moments or involved in their everyday occupations. Similar to that earlier film, much is also conveyed through colour – the camera here in one or two occasions slipping out of focus into an impressionistic blur of motion and colour.

In the absence of dialogue and a narrative flow, music becomes the driving force behind the film and Étienne Perruchon’s score is a powerful one. Composed before the film was made, Leconte listened to tapes of the score while filming, the music informing and setting the rhythm of the shoot. Surprisingly, the score doesn’t take the route of a westernised view of traditional Eastern music using ethnic instruments, but uses a full-scale orchestra and choir, chanting choruses in perfect synchronisation to the rhythms of the editing, right down to the punctuation of the scene changes. The language used for the chants is an invention of the composer, which he calls ‘Dogorienne’ (hence the film’s title) and they have no particular meaning. The music may not be ethnically authentic, but it feels appropriate for the film and carries the viewer along.

Dogora is released in France by TF1. The DVD is Region 2 encoded and in PAL format. No English subtitles are required for the feature, since the soundtrack is entirely musical. Extra features however are not subtitled. The DVD also comes with a full-colour 36-page booklet Filming Journal, covering the shoot in Cambodia, and the words to all

Although Leconte’s busy 2.35:1 widescreen image inevitably loses much in transfer from the big screen, it has been well transferred to DVD, with not a mark, scratch or artefact visible anywhere on the print. The image remains reasonably sharp, although there is a lot of movement on the screen and some inevitable blurring, but the image remains clear and detailed with even darker night-time photography holding up very well. Colours are perhaps not quite as vivid as the theatrical print, darker scenes losing some of the detail that might otherwise be better visible in a theatrical projection, but again this is probably an inevitable consequence of a transfer to DVD.

In addition to a strong Dolby Digital 5.1 track, the film comes to DVD with a wonderful DTS mix of the film’s soundtrack. Obviously, since the music is constant throughout and plays such an integral part in the rhythm and mood of the film, the transfer of the soundtrack is of vital importance, and the mixes here are certainly up to the task, allowing incidental background sounds and chatter of dialogue to seep through and spread across the surrounds.

There are no subtitles for the film, but there is no dialogue, so none are required. Even the songs have no meaningful words, being made up of invented chants, so even they do not require subtitling. They are however transcribed in full in the booklet that accompanies the DVD.

Commentary by Patrice Leconte
As ever on French DVD editions of his films, Leconte delivers a typically detailed and never less than fascinating commentary for Dogora. The idea of the film came when he visited his youngest brother Antoine, who lived and worked on a rubber plantation in Cambodia. Many of the images he subsequently sought out for the film were inspired by his experiences of that visit. Many of the scenes were therefore planned, but inevitably there are fortuitous moments captured that could never be intended. Leconte relates how he had two principles in making the film – one - never to manipulate the scene by telling anyone how to behave for the camera, and two – never to use a hidden camera, since “human complicity” is essential in the film. There were some exceptions to these rules, but the director explains why in each scene and is clearly troubled about making the decision to break those rules. However, he doesn’t see the film as a documentary, but rather an impression of the Cambodian people. Obviously, the director talks about the music and how he aimed to make it work with the film, sometimes to set a mood and other times as a contrast. This use of contrasts is also evident in some of the editing choices, often proposed by the film editor Joëlle Hache and in the deliberate pacing of adjacent scenes. I’m not generally a fan of director commentaries, but Patrice Leconte is always a genial and intelligent commentator and has something worthwhile to say about every scene. It’s unfortunate that this is not subtitled in English, but that would hardly be expected.

Une Émotion Dogorienne (16:06)
This short featurette captures the recording of the film’s score in Budapest under the guidance of composer Étienne Perruchon, who finds the Hungarian voice best suited to ‘Dogorienne’. Leconte is shown filming the overture sequence of the film here. I’m not particularly a fan of Perruchon’s music, but this feature is good, allowing you to see the faces behind the voices, and being able to identify the fine harmonies. The feature is in French (and Dogorienne) without subtitles.

Diaporama (1:25)
A slideshow of behind-the-scenes still photographs of Leconte and crew shooting scenes for the film.

Trailer (1:43)
The trailer is presented anamorphically at 1.85:1 and contains Leconte’s written statement on the purpose of the film, which I’m sure was also at the start of the film when this was shown theatrically.

The lack of any familiar narrative drive in Dogora is not going to appeal to everyone. At a theatrical showing in Paris, I witnessed people leaving at various stages throughout the film and to be honest I don’t think they missed anything other than more of the same. Leconte has surprised many here though, showing an experimental side to his filmmaking and stretching his creative abilities, presenting a more personal side to his work, finding a subject that means something to him and being quite successful in his endeavour to put across the lives of the Cambodia people as they really live. TF1’s French DVD release presents the film every bit as well as you would hope for a film like this, with superb image and sound quality. The extras, particularly Leconte’s commentary and the production diary booklet (all unfortunately with no English options), are also fascinating, fully rounding out the package.

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