When you are asked to think of the great filmmaking countries of the world, many will think of the States, France or maybe Korea. Even within Europe, British and Italian cinema are seen by many to be respected institutions, producing consistently high-quality films. I held these views, and so was surprised when a friend whose opinion on film I highly value recommended me to watch Festen (1998), a Danish film from director Thomas Vinterberg. I immediately fell in love with its unique voice, cinematography and editing style. Vinterberg is a visionary director, and Festen is the first film of the Dogme 95 movement that he started.
Festen (or The Celebration) is set during the 60th birthday party of a rich businessman, and follows his three adult children, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Helene (Paprika Steen), among other guests. It is a pitch-black comedy, exploring themes of death and abuse within a familial context. As the film progresses, we learn more about the family’s history, and the experiences endured by Christian and his twin sister, who had recently committed suicide before the events of the film. This information is drip fed to us, slowly teased out and revealed in some jaw dropping scenes. As we build a picture of the background behind the film, the characters and their specific irregularities shine through with absolute clarity. This makes for an ultimately satisfying, if not draining, film-going experience.
Festen often feels like a stage play, serving to create a distancing effect between the audience and the narrative, allowing us to be more critical of the characters and their actions. Festen’s strength lies in its sharp writing and excellent characters, all of whom perfectly toe the line between excruciating realism and outrageous exaggeration. They are simultaneously absurd and authentic, with their often-ridiculous behaviour later being justified by very real trauma.
Vinterberg also constructs a wider cast of characters past the core family, from the staff working at the hotel to the various extended family members and guests, helping to weave the characters’ history. These characters are mostly passive observers to the events of the film, remaining seated and silent during even the most shocking revelations. This draws a parallel between these characters and the audience, challenging our relationship with the media we consume. The actors are given room to shine with sharp dialogue, with an often-improvisational feel, and bring incredible life and energy to these challenging characters.
Dogme 95, the movement that Festen is the flagship film for, is a response to and criticism of the overproduced, flashy films coming out of Hollywood. Using natural lighting and sound and on a minimal budget, space is cleared for the intimate cinematography and unique editing style. The camera is thrust directly into the action, making us feel as if we are sat in the room. Movement is used very effectively, enhancing the more uncomfortable moments and closing the gap between audience and character. Dialogue is shot uniquely, often from the other side of the room or not even in frame. This gives the feeling of eavesdropping, like we are intruding on this party and the revelations therein.
The cinematography is excellently paired with a frantic editing style, often following multiple threads simultaneously, and making sudden tonal U-turns. This chaotic visual style perfectly complements the narrative and characters, physically immersing us with them. Despite this, we are still encouraged to remain distant and critical. As these non-conventional techniques remind us, we are watching a film. We are fed the emotion of the scenes, both through the scenes themselves and through the movement of the camera and the edit.
Festen is a heavy watch. It is uncomfortable, both in its subject and delivery, but makes for a satisfying and therapeutic experience. We are shown a 30-year family history get dragged out over a weekend and share it with all the interested parties. It is brutally funny and tragic at the same time, and excels in its delivery of both these aspects. I recommend this to anyone who is keen to explore international cinema and to see something unlike anything they have likely seen before.
It is available on Amazon Prime.