Festen (The Celebration)
Denmark (1998) Dir. Thomas Vinterberg
It is the sixtieth birthday of respected businessman and patriarch Helge Klingenfeldt-Hansen (Henning Moritzen) and his family arrive at his country hotel for the celebration – eldest son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), boorish younger son Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), his wife Mette (Helle Dolleris) and kids, and globe trotting daughter Helene (Parika Steen).
During the party Christian makes a speech as eldest son, which he calls “Home Truths”, but shocks everyone when he accuses his father of sexual abusing both him and his dead sister Linda (Lene Laub Oksen). Initially this is laughed off and under duress from his father in a private chat, Christian retracts his statement, only to return to the dinner and accuse his father of murdering his sister.
Festen was the first film made under the Dogme 95 rules – in which a group of Danish filmmakers, including Lars von Trier, decided to set up a movement in which simplicity was the key to filmmaking, a response to Hollywood’s obsession with CGI productions.
Director Thomas Vinterberg has since gone onto helm many glossy works of his own (as has von Trier) including last year’s exceptional drama The Hunt, but his sense of subversion and mischief is palpable in this film, and indeed the Dogme 95 ethos pays dividends as he proves you can make a captivating film with no budget and even less sparkle.
It is made apparent from the onset there is quite a unique range of personalities in the Klingenfeldt-Hansen family, with humble Christian walking to the mammoth guest house as truculent brother Michael speeds past in his full car, only to stop and throw his wife and children out so he can drive his brother to the hotel.
Upon arrival Michael lays into the desk clerk Lars (Lars Brygmann) with typical braggadocio until he learns he wasn’t invited after he missed Linda’s funeral. Michaels temper and petulance appear to be his best traits as he treats everyone with aggressive disdain. Helene shocks the family by brining her latest boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah), who later is treated to a racially offensive song in his honour.
Therefore it is little surprise that Christian’s shock announcements are first met with incredulity then wilful ignorance, sweeping the issue under the table as Christian’s personal fantasy. However Helen found Linda’s suicide note which she hid away and while we never see the contents at this point, one can assume they vindicate Christian.
Another ace up Christian’s sleeve is the help of the staff, including maid Pia (Trine Dyrholm) and head chef Kim (Bjarne Henriksen) who ensures there is a captive audience for when the brown stuff hits the fan.
Vinterberg delights in holding a mirror up to social conventions in this darkly satirical and incisive tale, a veritable slap in the face to all of the self important types who would rather keep their own images clean by ignoring what is a desperate plea by Christian for emotional restitution on both his behalf and that of Linda’s, the real victim here, while exposing the hypocrisy of his parents in their denial and the awkward, burying of their heads in the sand of the guests.
It is this sycophancy and willingness to give Helge the benefit of the doubt with no questions asked that is as much under the microscope as it is the idea to expose the arrogance that comes with years of being the unchallenged patriarch. Everything comes back to bite you on the backside and Vinterberg relishes in showing Helge having a huge chunk taken out of his.
Shot on a Sony handicam with no post production tinkering, Festen is the quintessence of indie filmmaking which more than holds its own against multi million dollar productions. Aside from the fancy credits there is little else in the way of fancy filmmaking techniques present.
The use of natural light creates an integral part of the unsettling atmosphere both internal and external, the latter particularly unnerving during the night time scenes, while the handheld camera style is deliberately intrusive and haphazard to catch the honesty and chaos of the situation once the ugly truths hit home.
The grittiness of the story lends itself to such economic production values yet isn’t necessarily beholden to it, although had this been a shiny, HD affair it somehow would have lost its impact.
The cast are all pitch perfect and one finds little cause to question that they are not a real family, such is the conviction and palpable chemistry between them. At the time many of the cast were just starting out and have since gone on to bigger things, noticeably Ulrich Thomsen, who starred in the chilling German film The Silence, and Thomas Bo Larsen, a frequent Vinterberg collaborator, last seen in The Hunt, while other faces have become familiar to UK audiences via Nordic Noir TV shows such as The Killing and Those Who Kill.
The Dogme 95 style is likely to put a lot of viewers of with its unfettered, rough and ready style, but Festen has an urgency and truth to it that demands one’s attention and hopefully this rebellious style is quickly accepted.
Beneath the sketchy veneer is a film that has an important and relevant message to share and point to make, and this pricking of egos is a bold, sledgehammer of a film that should rewarded with greater recognition.