Ok. Ok, well, this is pretty dark. Pretty dark indeed. It’s got everything: child abuse, suicide, racism, sexism, physical abuse, sexual abuse, basically every abuse – y’know, most of the original sins.
Festen, or The Celebration in English, is the story of Helge (Henning Moritzen), a rich businessman, who’s celebrating his 60th birthday. However, the party soon begins to spiral out of control when his son, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), reveals a dark secret about his childhood.
This was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, which was started by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Designed to strip cinema of big budget films with lots of technical effects and sensational plots, it was all about getting back to the roots of film and away from the corporate mainstream. The rules are relatively simple:
- To make a film as organic and real as possible
- To rid filmmaking of tired and soulless conventions
- To remove any mention of the filmmaker from the film
However, while those may be relatively easy to adhere to, the deeper ‘Vow of Chastity’ is far harder to maintain:
- Shooting must be done on location (no props)
- Sound must be all natural
- Camera must be handheld
- The film must be in colour – no special lighting
- No superficial actions
- Film format must be Academy 35mm
- The director must not be credited
This makes creating a film incredibly difficult, whilst also putting all involved at an extreme disadvantage. Due to these tough rules, the founders, such as Vinterberg, the director of Festen, slowly began to manipulate them and stretch them as far as they could, as they felt the Vow of Chastity was making their films too formulaic. Of course, some of the fathers of Dogme 95 are now household names. It was ended in 2005.
But the effect at the start of the movement was startling, and helped to change people’s view on films. So, I said to myself, where better to begin than with 1998’s Festen?
It’s hard to ground Festen in one genre. I think it’s definitely drama, but also, interestingly, a black comedy. There were moments where I found myself chuckling, although I wasn’t quite sure if I should have been. Many people will not find this funny. And while it is sad and, at times, tough to watch, the script is brilliantly written to give the film a refreshing breeze every once in a while when the viewer can sometimes be struggling for air. Perhaps you could claim it’s a satire.
The fact the camera is all handheld and the format is Academy 35mm works very well with the subject we’re viewing. The grainy footage, constantly jolting and moving, gives it an almost ‘home movie’ type feel, which feels suitably rustic for the occasion at hand. You can imagine watching the old footage of these candid moments – son making a speech, the grandmother singing a song, the children trying to offer moral support, mixed in with a bit of good ol’ classic treachery and betrayal.
The fun and games really begin when Christian makes his speech. He holds two cards, and asks his dad which speech he should make. His father chooses green. It links to drawing lots and his intertwining relationship with his sister. And soon everything begins to unravel. The guests go on with the party in denial – the quote goes, “in the kingdom of the blind, there are none so blind than those who refuse to see”. The knock out blow comes when Christian asks his father why, why he did it. And although it’s over in half a second, it leaves you short of breath. This is a genuinely explosive and powerfully executed film.
It’s also incredibly realistic. There is no ‘sensational plot’. Unlike the patriarch of the family, it’s not overbearing. The acting is brilliant from the likes of Thomas Bo Larsen (The Hunt), Paprika Steen and Trine Dyrholm. Every detail makes perfect sense, the plot is delicately and expertly designed and the ending is not a massive shoot out or violent blood bath. It’s breakfast. The end justifies the means. What many modern films lack is consequentialism – characters can do ridiculous actions and have no consequences, and are able to get on with their lives. This doesn’t apply to Festen.
I think that’s an interesting idea, that whatever happens throughout the film, even if there were murders or vampires or a massive Mechagodzilla, the guests would wake up in the morning and have breakfast. It’s been an age old debate about the meaning of Festen, with some arguing that perhaps it’s just pure entertainment, and others saying it’s about child abuse (which it isn’t) and others saying it’s about our dependence on social conventions.
But Festen is, at the end of the day, about a party. About a party that never ends. What’s so human is when the father enters the room, finally apologises, and must suffer the consequences of his actions. He’s politely ostracised from the room, with his wife refusing to go with him, leaving his children and friends behind.
Everyone is against Christian at the start – the classic lone man against impossible odds – gathered by order at a formal occasion, but by the end, they are able to come truly together as a family. They are redeemed.
This is not a dysfunctional family. They’d be lucky to be called dysfunctional. This is the true reality of the perfect, middle class abode. We always think it’s the poor man, working on his knees just to make ends meet, that’s interesting. But it’s the powerful rich ones with something to hide. And Festen reveals that secret in the most spectacular of fashions.
Festen – 8 out of 10