A father’s sixtieth birthday is a cause for family celebration but as the extended relatives gather to rejoice a cloud hangs over them. Helge, the father, hopes his close family will support the festivities but eldest son Christian has something he wants to share with his family and will do so via a speech at the birthday dinner, a speech of truth. Christian is reunited with his siblings, Helene and Michael, but the three are still mourning the death of his twin Linda, who committed suicide the year before. There is tension surrounding the family and questions unanswered over the death of Linda, but Christian sets out to challenge his patriarchal father and answer everyone’s questions.
Despite his relatively short career, Festen being only his third full-length feature, Vinterberg used his film to push the boundaries of his work. The young director from Denmark presented this film as the first to come from the ‘Dogme 95 Manifesto’. Conceived by Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier, a more established director at the time, Dogme 95 was seen as a rejection of Hollywood cinema. The pair believed that the illusion of Hollywood was too much; to pretend that something was real with all the technical input that went into it was false. And so they aimed to strip filmmaking back; Dogme 95’s ‘Vow of Chastity’ contained a set of rules that these innovative directors believed would bring film-making closer to their goal of authenticity. The ‘Vow’ consisted of ten rules such as, the camera must be handheld, there must be no optical effects and no post-recorded sounds, props cannot be brought to a location but can only be used if found there.
It is a challenge to say that Vinterberg should be commended for the success of this filming style as Dogme 95 rules state that a director should not be credited; indeed, the members express no belief in the ‘Auteur’. However, despite this, Vinterberg received great critical acclaim for his family-centred vision and the film was a global success. Having received a Jury Prize at Cannes (joint with La Classe de Neige, a film of the same taboo topic), Festen was later screened in just short of 600,000 cinemas in France and achieved distribution in the US market. This was a great feat for a Danish film of a small production. The film’s success is pinned not simply to its unconventional style but also to its theme. Set against a backdrop of Danish tradition, the celebration of father Helge is a universal story. The main subject of the film is one of taboo, child abuse; however the cinematic audience was becoming more open. It is a subject that has impact and should be addressed globally. Vinterberg was also clever with his depiction of a family reunion as again all audience members can relate to the feeling of meeting relatives that haven’t been seen for years, rivalry between siblings and he even adds in a senile Grandpa to provide a comic relief from the intensity of Christian’s revelations.
Festen critiques the hierarchy of the family; Christian arrives at the celebration to expose the truth about his father’s abuse towards himself and his twin. But the film also comments on the hierarchy of society. The original title was Blood of the Bourgeoisie; however, it was felt that this was too similar to titles used by Buñuel and so it was changed to Festen. The original title would have been fitting as we see lower-status characters such as the chef and waitresses aid Christian in his speech. The waitresses hide the car keys of the guests so that they cannot leave and are forced to hear Christian completely. Kim is the chef; he is a childhood friend of Christian’s who encourages him not to give up and to force the truth upon his family. These lower-status characters are rebelling against those in power, they want to bring the bourgeoisie down to the level of the proletariat. This could be considered reflective of Vinterberg’s rejection of Hollywood and desire to produce his film differently.
This hierarchy is also evident in the levels of the siblings. Michael is the youngest, the tearaway character, he lacks control of his anger. Helene is free-spirited and independent and Christian is a success in his work. Each character is so different that the viewer may be able to recognise themselves in at least one of them; they are stereotypical and relatable. Linda is the sibling we do not see; her funeral has occurred a year before the narrative but she is discussed several times in the dialogue between the other three. At times the camerawork makes the viewer feel as though we may be observing through Linda’s eyes. As the camera is handheld there is often a sense of point-of-view shots as though Linda is watching. The cinematography is by Anthony Dod Mantle, who since has worked on many of Von Trier’s films. Mantle filmed with three cameras giving a feeling that the mansion is being recorded with CCTV. This ‘Big Brother’ style of filming makes the viewer feel as though they are intruding on private events. Often during Christian’s revealing speech the camera hovers behind him, it gives the impression of a live audience, like we are witnessing a reality television show and being asked to pass judgement on the characters. Owing to the use of three cameras there is more shot choice for the editor and so the narrative is always continuous. The cameras capture the reactions of Christian’s audience when he exposes the sexual abuse his father dealt him as a child. In formal style his parents and siblings are spread around the dinner table so they can each act as host to a smaller section of the guests, the editing juxtaposes close-ups of his family’s reaction, which does not fit the information they have received. The underwhelming reaction is conventional of the bourgeoisie, similar to Buñuel’s characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Vinterberg’s characters act initially as if nothing has been said, the atmosphere of farcical celebration is upheld.
The handheld camera is also used to an advantage when Michael tries to remove Christian from the party. The fighting acts as a commotion that almost justifies chaotic camera work. Owing to the documentary feel the audience don’t expect to be able to see all that is going on. As a character that has been unable to control himself throughout; losing his temper with the hotel manager, his wife and the maid with whom he had an affair, Michael acts in the only way he knows. Trying to please his father he lashes out at Christian. In earlier conversation further links were made to bourgeoisie lifestyle as Helge offers Michael a place in the Freemasons. Despite the fact that the offer is undermined as he is second choice due to Christian’s refusal, Michael is overjoyed and seizes the opportunity to take part in something with his father. It is apparent that Michael was not victim to his father’s abuse but has instead received other negative attention. He is in strong contradiction to Christian who is at all times the calm voice of reason despite the hardships he has faced.
Christian’s calmness is also portrayed in the scene where we are first introduced to Helge. He emerges from the dark and asks to talk to Christian, the pair shake hands as they greet each other and take a seat in a room with low-key lighting. Christian continually rubs his hand, as if he is trying to remove the trace of his father’s handshake. This action combined with the fact that his father’s face is never fully lit, as he hides in the shadows, act as signifiers to the audience that he is shameful and a dark twist may occur. However, the conversation between the pair does not reveal much as Christian remains reserved. The focus of the film’s narrative is very much on the family’s dark secret; this means the viewer is constantly focussed on finding out the truth about the family. The only sign of a life outside of the mansion is when Helene’s new boyfriend, Gbatokai arrives. Even then there is no extension of the characters. Gbatokai is a victim of racism from Michael who refers to him as ‘Charlie Brown’ and from Helene’s mother who presumes this is the same black man that her daughter has brought home before and refuses to make any attempt to pronounce his name accurately. Even with this slight development in Helene’s character, no resolution is provided for the audience, as the racism remains unsettled.
As well as raising issues of racism, the character of Else (the mother) also calls into question the guilt of those who do nothing to prevent abuse. In a speech of her own Else compliments her husband Helge for his commitment to her. Discussing each of her children it is clear that her praise is laced with criticism. The only thing she praises Michael for are the grandchildren he provides, and whilst complimenting Helge’s independence she criticises her choice of studies and career path. In reference to Christian she implies that he has fabricated his father’s abuse similar to the way he would fabricate his imaginary friend as a child, stating ‘I think Snoot has been with you today’. She undermines him and through this suggests to her guests that Christian has lost his mind. The handheld camera is fixed on Else’s face and switches to Christian. Similarly to during Christian’s speech, Else’s face continues to give nothing away. There is no shock, implying that she was aware of what her husband had done but didn’t act, instead choosing to hide it. Birthe Neumann, who plays Else, states it is the vilest character she has ever played. This calls into question some of the practices of filming claimed by the Dogme 95 rules. As Marie-Lise Betemps argues ‘How can Dogme 95 praise the refusal of illusion and at the same time praise the presence of actors and emphasise their work to such a tremendous extent?’ (2002: 16). Cinematographer, Mantle, agrees with this stating, in The Making of Festen (2005), that the actors have more freedom due to the fluidity of the cameras. As they did not have to wait for lighting to be set up or cameras to be put into position the actors were able to complete scenes more quickly allowing for more creativity.
Once Christian has completed his speech his calmness remains. Exposed and ashamed his father simply retires to his room. He is no longer in the strong patriarchal position, yet bourgeois tendencies remain. The awkward atmosphere is evident yet there is little acknowledgement of the revelations. Else continues to converse as if nothing has happened, the elephant remains in the room.
Vinterberg’s Festen was the first of the Dogme 95 films. He achieved his goal of creating a piece of cinema that didn’t rely on façade. As John Rockwell argues in his discussion of Trier’s film The Idiots, ‘Low-budget European movies look technically raw, and Dogma just pushes that extreme further. They concentrate on close-ups and conversation rather than polished craft’ (2003: 9). This is most definitely the tone that Vinterberg’s feature set. It is interesting to note that Trier’s career has been successful whilst shrouded in controversy, whereas Vinterberg has received more limited critical praise since. Although Dogme rules state that a filmmaker should only create one Dogme piece, perhaps this is where Vinterberg’s talents lie.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Denmark. Production Company: Nimbus Film. Director: Thomas Vinterberg. Cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantle. Original Music: Lars Bo Jensen. Producer: Brigitte Hald. Editor: Valdis Oskarsdottìr. Cast: Ulrich Thomsen (Christian), Henning Moritzen (Helge, father), Paprika Steen (Helene), Thomas Bo Larsen (Michael), Birthe Neumann (Else, mother).]
Marie-Lise Bétemps, ‘Dogmatic Festen: How a viewer could not escape Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen’. Norden 1: Europa, 2002, pp. 14–21.
Danny Leigh, ‘The Salutary Tale of Thomas Vinterberg, Ghost of Filmic Failure Past’. Available at: www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2011/ may/27/thomas-vinterberg-lars-von-trier-film, 2011 (accessed 12 February 2012).
Peter Matthews, ‘Festen Review’. Available at www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/review/49, 1998 (accessed 12 February 2012).
John Rockwell, The Idiots, London, BFI, 2003. Eric Lennart Peterson, The Making of Festen, exclusive to the tenth anniversary edition of Festen. Electric Parc Aps, 2005.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.