Festen at LIFF

Patriarchal angst

Patriarchal angst

Dogme #1, directed by Thomas Vinterberg and released in Denmark in 1998 was one of the European Catalyst films screened at the Leeds International Film Festival. These films have “game changing features running through the history of world cinema that were the first in influential movements.”  There can be few examples where the opening salvo of a movement has arrived with so much aplomb and panache as Festen (The Celebration).

Three siblings, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), Hélene (Paprika Steen) and Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) arrive at an affluent hotel for the celebrations of their wealthy father’s sixtieth birthday. The dinner and party are also attended by a large number of members of the extended family, friends and colleagues. And there is also a ghost at the banquet: Christian’s dead twin sister Linda, who committed suicide. Revelations from the past during the weekend reveal this as a completely dysfunctional family, with not only vicious verbal infighting but outright violence.

The film was made following the ‘Ten Commandments’ of the Dogme Manifesto. So we have all the trademarks of this film group: hand-held camera, natural lighting and sound, no special effects and the then rare Academy film ratio. The film was shot of video, [though Vinterberg would have preferred 35mm] and this gives it a raw and tawdry look. What is most noticeable about the film is another Dogme trademark, the intensity of characterisation and action. Henning Moritzen, who plays the father, was quoted from a press conference in Sight & Sound (February 1999) “The main departure was that the camera followed him rather than him having to follow the camera. He didn’t have to worry about hitting marks and was therefore able to give a performance much closer to what he would have attempted had he been playing the corrupt old patriarch on stage.”

The film inverts one of the recent stereotypes of popular cinema and television, the dysfunctional proletarian family. Here it is the bourgeois family that is dysfunctional. Vinterberg is quoted in the Festival Catalogue: “You know fascism is very much about the anxiety of the ‘foreign’. And I guess this whole story is about that. The anxiety of something else other than what you’re used to. Something breaking the rituals, something disturbing the rituals.” He makes the point that Hélene brings with her an African-American boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah). Just about all of the guests at this party join in the singing of a racist song. And Michael, who is dominated by oedipal feelings, attacks several people including his own wife and workers at the hotel. At times the appalling older members of the family reminded me of those in Visconti’s great film The Damned (Götterdämmerung 1969).

Roy, in his review of the film, suggested that it is melodrama – which is true. He also suggests that it is a genre film – which I think not. This would breach the Dogme Vow ‘Genre movies are not acceptable.’ I think that melodrama is a mode of drama, rather like tragedy. A genre would be the family melodrama. Of course, you could place this film in that genre: the Sight & Sound article also suggested the country house drama. And we do have conventional plot mechanisms such as the revelation from the past, and the letter from the past. But the film completely subverts these as indeed it subverts the conventions of most of the contemporary cinema.

Vinterberg, along with Dogme comrade Lars von Trier, threw a bombshell into the world of film in 1998, rather along the lines of the bombshell that Christian lobs into the expensive gourmet meal at the weekend. I was as impressed at this screening as I was when the film first appeared. This is great cinema – funny, sardonic, even tragic and certainly moving. And we watched it on a good 35mm print, the format in which it was originally released.



  1. Roy Stafford

    The review attributed to me is actually by Nick.

    Even so, I would point out that the fact that ‘genre’ is not ‘allowed’ by the Dogme Vow of Chastity doesn’t of course mean that audiences, critics or scholars can’t respond to it in genre terms. Festen was one of the most successful of the early Dogme films but even so it couldn’t avoid breaking at least one ‘vow’ – substituting video for film since the vow revers to ‘film formats’. (See the Vow here.) But religiously sticking to the vow was never really the point (and as Keith points out, video was the only option because of budget constraints). In terms of revitalising the Danish film industry and causing an international stir (as well as promoting the careers of its adherents) Dogme was very successful.

    The quote about acting with the camera is interesting/prescient since Festen also became a major stage play.

  2. keith1942

    Re the generic aspect of the film, I discussed both Italian for Beginners (2000) and Festen with a group of students. They did comment on the generic elements but as one student explained, the form and style of the film really prevented responding as with ordinary genre films. I tend to think that both films, to varying degrees, subvert the family melodrama or the romantic comedy.
    It is true that Vow 8 requires the Academy 35mm format. Technically this is achieved as the film was originally distributed in 35mm and in the Academy ratio: though some distributors got the ratio wrong. The director of Italian for Beginners, Lone Scherfig “has expressed her conviction that the prose part of the Dogme 95 Manifesto – whereby the film-maker must vow to “force the truth” from characters and settings – is at least as crucial as the ten proscriptive `rules’” (S&S review).

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