Festen: A Cause for Celebration

If you thought your family was bad...

If you thought your family was bad…

Festen (The Celebration) serves as something of a landmark in independent cinema, not due to its shocking content, but rather because of its stark rejection of mainstream cinematography. This is because Festen is the first film that was produced in adherence to the ‘Dogme 95’ movement, a cinematic ‘vow of chastity’ established by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. So, before I plough into what the film is actually about, I want to talk about how it is filmed.

Dogme 95 films reject all special effects, technical tricks and other forms of overproduction. This is a return to simple, inexpensive and naturally captured film, with all cinematography falling within the possibilities of the filmed scene (diegetic). What this means is grainy film, wobbling handheld cameras and no abrupt post-production cuts across space or time. For those interested, I shall outline the Dogme 95 rules in full:

  • Shooting 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).
  • The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs when the scene is being shot).
  • The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  • 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).
  • Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  • The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  • Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  • Genre movies are not acceptable.
  • The film format must be Academy 35mm.
  • The director must not be credited.

So, with all that in mind, what is Festen about? And how does the Dogme style of filming shape the viewing experience? Well, Festen centres on a set of siblings who are attending their father’s 60th birthday at his ornate country house. We have Michael, a chauvinistic hot-head with wife and three kids in tow; Helene, the wild-card leftie of the family who brings along her black boyfriend Gbatokai (much to everyone’s amusement / distaste); and Christian, the quiet and mildly-mannered brother. Reunited for the first time since a family tragedy, the group’s wounds have clearly not healed. As the birthday toasts begin, the party spirals into disorder as family history is dredged up in plain sight of all those attending. I will go no further with my synopsis, despite it barely scratching the surface of this intensely awkward and tragic dive into a family’s underbelly. The less you know plot-wise, the better.

Whilst performances are all strong, it is the cinematography that amplifies it to a compelling level. These actors completely embody their characters, greatly aided by the fact that we see all of their imperfections and everyday actions: extreme close-ups, tripping over in the shower, unglamorous sex, and arguments in their raw intensity, all shorn of any cinematic over-stylisation. The mood of the film is perfectly charted by the timeline of events; all taking place within a day, a night and the morning after. As natural light fills the halls, guests are affable and polite, but once the candles need to be lit, the content gets much darker.

So why should you watch Festen? Well, because despite being shot in accordance with a manifesto, and all the poncey elaborateness that suggests, this is film stripped back to its bare bones. The style really makes you consider how alienating Hollywood conventions are, as with no editing or overly-obvious directorial decisions in the way, these characters’ lives are completely laid bare. It also manages to be engaging (at times, riveting) whilst set in only one location, and following a relatively small cast of characters. This is a film that really demonstrates that “less is more” and most importantly, is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.