The first and only hit of the now extinct Dogme ’95 film movement, Festen (The Celebration) could easily be overlooked. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s story of suicide and family scandal doesn’t exactly have that feel-good factor you want for a Saturday night in front of the TV, but as a foreign film and a gripping drama, Festen is worth salvaging.
Released in 1998 and screened at Cannes, it went on to win the Jury Prize and earned leading actor Ulrich Thomsen numerous awards for Best Actor – which is impressive for a film shot on a hand-held camera. In an almost Shakespearian performance, Festen documents the grim turn of events at the dinner party of a respected upper-crust businessman.
As Helge’s family and friends gather at a hotel to celebrate his 60th birthday, it is revealed that Linda, the twin sister of his son Christian (Thomsen) has recently passed away after committing suicide.
Christian, who has been extremely upset by her death stands to make a toast to his father in light of the recent events by asking him to choose between two speeches he has written. In the speech he names ‘The Speech Of Truth’, Christian goes on to unveil some rather unpleasant skeletons in his father’s closet in front of stunned guests. From there, things become tense and confused as people react to the news, switching between an almost comedic denial to disbelief and disgust at Christian.
The scenes are harsh and raw with the entirety of the film playing closely to the minimalistic low-budget rules of the Dogme manifesto. Vinterberg is said to have confessed in later years to breaking one of these rules by ‘covering a window’ to alter the lighting of a room. Yet Festen has a very strange fly-on-the-wall approach to it that will make you feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable. Each scene is filmed with a drab realism to ensure that your focus is on the story rather than on plush surroundings or stylish cinematography which distracts in less plot-heavy Hollywood productions.
Vinterberg’s narrative technique is also razor-sharp as details of Christian’s troubled past are merely hinted at with dialogue and subtle indicators from other family members that keep you guessing as to whether Christian is telling the truth. The atmosphere seems genuine and never relies on anything other than the cast to execute plot twists as they show amazing constraint in the face of bad news. Whilst elements of the blackest humour edge Festen towards the realms of a cruel dysfunctional comedy, the emotional conclusion stops it from being blasé, allowing it to become a powerful and moving piece of post-modern cinema.
Overall, this slow burning drama pays off despite its low production value. Be prepared to have a strong reaction to the subject matter as well as some of the underlying social commentaries Vinterberg throws in about his fellow Danes. The final moments are also particularly hard to swallow if you’re hoping for a tale of morality. Although it stands as the only notable title of a dead genre, Festen is certainly proof that Dogme, when executed well can be bleak, gripping and fascinating.
Best scene: THAT speech. More awkward than Kanye West at the MTV awards.
Best line: ‘Nice one, Dad. Good speech. Well done. But I think you’ll have to go now so we can eat our breakfast’.