Festen (1998): The birthday party from hell

The Dogme 95 movement was a veritable landmark in the world of film. Founded by Great Danes Lars Von Trier & Thomas Vinterberg, it was an artistic overhaul that took a polarising fundamentalist approach to the execution of narrative, themes and performances. Seeing overproduction as a sin that zombified audiences, the Dogme collective formulated strict rules around filmmaking that include shooting on location, only found props, no non-diegetic sound, hand-held cameras using Academy 35mm format, no simulated deaths and the director forgoing a credit. While it hasn’t been without its strong detractors (film critic Armond White derided the movement as being ‘no better than amateur porn’), Dogme 95 has proved an unequivocally ground-breaking step that, for many, distinguishes a sincere love for the medium of cinema from cynically-motivated brain candy (I love both, so I’m not sticking my head above that particular parapet).

The first film to spring forth from this controversial independence movement was Vinterberg’s 1998 sophomore directorial effort Festen (translated into English as ‘The Party’ or ‘The Celebration’). A highly confrontational, darkly humorous and substantively written drama, the way it deftly subverts the conventions of character-driven domestic tales and envelopes the viewer in car-crash discomfort remains unrivalled.

Helge Klingenfeld (Henning Moritzen) is an extraordinarily wealthy and respected businessman who is about to turn 60. Having organised a lavish celebratory weekend at the Skjoldenaesholm Castle, Helge and his wife Else (Birthe Neumann) have gathered a large array of Helge’s friends, business acquaintances and also the couple’s children. They are Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), the intensely guarded and laconic eldest son, Christian’s younger brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), a coarse and mean-spirited bigot with his long-suffering wife and children in tow, and their infinitely more personable and cosmopolitan sister Helene (Paprika Steen). A fourth sibling, Christian’s twin sister Linda, has recently committed suicide and it’s a tragedy that is a catalytic factor in the maelstrom that is about to ensue.

Following preliminary catch-ups and some rather staid revelry, the attendees are seated in the main banquet hall for dinner, and it is this instance that prompts Christian to deliver a toast for his father on this most glorious of milestones. He gives Helge the choice of hearing two speeches contained in yellow and green envelopes respectively, Helge choosing the latter oratory that Christian ominously refers to as the ‘home truth speech’. Beginning with a peculiar ramble about Helge’s fastidious bathing habits, Christian proceeds to drop a bombshell regarding the incessant and clandestine sexual abuse that he and Linda suffered at Helge’s hands when they were children.

The revelation initially stunning the guests into a bemused silence, this disclosure foments a wild and unpredictable sequence of events that unearth ugly tendencies and motivations among the revellers, playing out a devastating and viciously weird farce that achieves a uniquely engrossing and disturbing atmosphere while dispensing with mawkish character arcs and other kinds of dramatic overkill. The film essentially conveys entity-like sentience, knowing that you cannot look away and using that fact to its utmost advantage.

With its grainy stock and hand-held movements, Festen effortlessly immerses the viewer in an experience that feels simultaneously oneiric and wincingly documentarian, unflinching from faces as characters let various horrific cats out of the bag and teasing the viewer with some confoundingly unexpected reactions to said cats. After Christian’s reveal, the majority of non-familial acquaintances and extended relatives continue as if nothing had been said, generating a composite sensation of deadpan hilarity, realistic dysfunctional tension and even an air of surrealist horror. Where there isn’t outright denial there is gaslighting, accusations of calculating malice, retractions and re-assertions of thoughts, emotions and declarative statements, the heaviness of the subject matter perfectly counterbalanced with a subtle comedy-of-manners in which guests bicker over whether their soup contains lobster or salmon and treating the entire occasion and surprises therein as little more than a mildly annoying inconvenience.

As is conducive to the Dogme movement’s directive to accentuate performances and storytelling over everything else, the central acting in Festen is nothing short of uncomfortably convincing and brilliant. The po-faced standoffishness that Christian initially exudes transforms into a magnetically authentic portrayal of suppressed trauma once Helge’s secrets come to light, Thomsen’s surly expressions and brusque mannerisms creating a character of incredible substance that stands as a testament to the power of minimalist film aesthetics.

Larsen is also note-perfect in his portrayal of consummate arsehole Michael, the mercurial troublemaker who seems to have grown into a more conspicuously dysfunctional adult than his siblings (he certainly trumps them in malignantly narcissistic personality traits), berating his family members and venue staff and, most distastefully, exercising openly racist hostility toward Helene’s black American boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah). Larsen’s performance impeccably treads a line between a petulant man-child masking deep pain and an irredeemably nasty lout, another signifier that Christian’s revelation has had a knock-on effect in forcing others present to exorcise their demons. So verisimilar are the portrayals of the culprits and the wounded, the unseen presence of the deceased Linda hangs over proceedings with an unquestionably draining power.

While all of this committed work is formidable in its own right, it would be utterly remiss to not mention the fortification imbued by the application of Dogme’s central tenets. Rather like the gritty horrors of Alan Clarke’s 1979 masterwork Scum being left untrammelled by non-diegesis, the events of Festen are rendered a more bitter pill to swallow than they would have been with invasive musical interludes. The musical centrepiece in the film, if any, is a jaw-dropping sequence in which Michael leads the festal entourage in a rendition of a traditional Danish song with racist overtones, rubbing it in Helene and Gbatokai’s faces and compounding the elusive feeling of dreamlike insanity that runs through the picture. The entire thing feels like a documentary about the most toxic family in existence, a notion that would surely materialise in overwrought misery-porn had it been in the hands of Hollywood as opposed to the ballsy and creative European sensibilities that fostered it. Festen almost feels like a long and elaborate game, but not in a way that cheapens the implications of its themes.

The movement that this film kick-started hasn’t produced a work that can hold a candle to its power, but that’s not to say that the majority of subsequent Dogme films are poor, just that the inaugural opus is very much a singular beast in the way it exemplifies what Von Trier & Vinterberg’s cinematic vows can do for the most seemingly uncomplicated of stories. For a movie with such dark content, Festen has a bizarrely kinetic sense of adventure and discovery, every facet executed with a top-tier precision that communicates a work of raw honesty and idiosyncrasy that isn’t comparable to anything else. If you’ve yet to sit down in front of it, it’s time to give your watchlist a bump.

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