When you talk about Festen, it is an obligation to also talk about the film movement that was inaugurated by it. Dogme 95 was a movement that started in Denmark by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, the director of our chosen film today. Dogme 95 was a radical movement that was announced like a revolution as Von Trier showered the audience of a Parisian conference with leaflets about Dogme 95 and it’s “Vow of Chastity”. Although the movement came to an end in 2005, the movement was the most exciting thing that had happened to cinema in decades. The excitement of something different can be felt when watching Festen.
Festen is a black comedy/drama (kind of) that puts us right in the centre of a large family gathering for the patriarch Helge’s (Henning Mortizen) 60th birthday. His sons Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) and Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) and his daughter Helene (Paprika Steen) travel down to be with their father for his milestone birthday. And while the title of the film may mean “celebration” this gathering is anything, but as horrible family truths are revealed that pit family members against one another.
Normally I would break down each point about the film that I love, instead, we’ll be taking a different approach to Festen. Considering it was the beginnings of a filmmaking movement and said movement had a set of rules laid out in the aforementioned Vow of Chastity, I would like to go through just some of those rules that Festen upholds and how the story is made all the more effective by them. We begin with one of the more radical rules, the fact that the entire film is shot in handheld. Now a lot of modern films incorporate handheld camera work so you may be asking why Festen is any different. It is because modern films also include the use of filters to make the scene look more cinematic, Festen doesn’t do that so the footage you are seeing is raw and unaltered. And while some may say it has the look of a family home video, Festen actually benefits from this as the majority of the camera angles are intended to make the audience feel part of this celebration, making the revealed secrets more hard-hitting and effective.
You’ll also begin to understand that seeing the events of Festen, you can’t exactly categorise it in any sort of film genre, which is why I use the term black comedy/drama loosely. The reason behind this is, you guessed it, another rule in the Vow of Chastity that forbids genre films. Bringing up a film in conversation usually begins with identifying the genre it depicts, so try explaining something that is genreless. If there would be any point about Festen I would use to convince people to watch it this would be it, just for the pure experience of watching a film with no genre.
While officially not a rule of the movement, I think that Thomas Vinterberg would agree wholeheartedly that any performances must be natural. Festen is possibly the most natural you can get considering the handheld format. And to put one actor on a pedestal would be an injustice to the effort put in by the whole cast to be as natural as possible. That being said, I do think Ulrich Thomsen stands out amongst the crowd. His character Christian is the one who reveals this dark secret and what happens to him is a perfect reconstruction of the confrontation faced in the wakening of this dark secret. And because of how raw the scenes are, the achievement of the film taking place in the here and now (another Vow of Chastity rule) is met without a shadow of a doubt.
However, I can’t give Ulrich Thomsen praise without also praising the dominating performance of Thomas Bo Larsen as Michael. You learn early on that he is a character who has a heavy-handed nature, he outlandishly demonstrates how he is the sort of leader of his siblings who cares for the overall togetherness of the family, so when things are revealed he becomes more and more brutish to the point where he takes to seemingly cruel measures just to keep the family harmony.
I think when you look at all the rules in the Vow of Chastity that relate to storytelling, they have one sole intention. To make the story feel like it is happening somewhere right now, and we are there. In the case of Festen, it is a job well done as every layer of this film is constructed to make the story as real as possible. We can either be a fly on the wall or right in the thick of it and it will always amount to that same intention. It’s a shame that Dogme 95 had to come to an end, but some traces of it live on in Vinterberg’s other works and now the very thing Dogme 95 was fighting against has become the norm and mundane, maybe the movement could be resurrected. I’ve had a fascination with this movement since I began studying film and would love for it to make a comeback.