Festen (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998)

Well, I put “Thomas Vinterberg” in the title, giving him credit, but just look at number 10, below.

1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).
8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
10. The director must not be credited.

This is the Dogme 95 manifesto, as listed on Wikipedia.

Set on the day, and following night, of the 60th birthday celebration (the title means “party”) for a patriarchal owner of a hotel, Helge (Henning Moritzen) welcoming back his remaining children after the funeral of one of his daughters , Festen appears to obey the rules as far as I can see. In places, this is a little distracting, as some of the low-light footage looks very grainy, to a degree that looks like puritanism at the expense of the perceived ‘reality’ of the experience, surely not the intention of this film, but overall delivers a compact and compelling drama.

We join the film’s main protagonist, now Paris-based restaurateur Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) walking along an open and empty road through sunny fields, making his way from the station when he is overtaken by a car. In the car is his younger brother, Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) with his family. Unceremoniously kicking out his wife and three children in order to give Christian a lift back to the house and leaving his family to walk, we swiftly see that Michael is a nasty, thuggish brute, a view that is by no means improved on further viewing, even if we get given some reasons to sympathise with him. The youngest of the family, Michael has lived most of his life away from the family home from the time he was sent to boarding school, and is also in the shadow of the more successful Christian, and out of favour for misbehaving badly the previous year.

Also on the way is their elder sister Helene (Paprika Steen), a bit of a mess in her own way, who rushes her taxi dangerously to get home in time to carry out her duties of welcoming the other guests – this is a very large, formal affair – and is horrified to discover she has been given the room of the dead sister, Linda, though she immediately sees signs that Linda has left a message…

There are twists and turns, with some extra characters introduced and some detail added to the backstory but everything stays in the realms of the plausible – even the appearance of Linda as a ghost is done in such a manner as to be equally interpretable as a dream – and all the action comes out of the behaviour of the characters, who are fleshed out and recognisable people by good script and acting, rather than by cinematic tropes and cliches. Dealing with some serious issues of abuse and responsibility, this could have been either worthy or sensationalist but ends up being neither, managing to craft a watchable, gripping, and frequently very funny drama from beginning to end, with a couple of absolutely mesmerising scenes of revelation that were simply stunning.

If Dogme 95 achieved nothing else, it was worth it for Festen, one of the best films I’ve yet seen.


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