Thomas Vintenberg’s Festen has been on my watch list ever since I watched Breaking the Waves and Ubermensch introduced me to the concept of Dogme95. Finally, I found the movie on Quickflix (the DVD rental portal of Australia, which has a reasonably good collection, significantly better than seventymm and bigflix of India when it comes to titles from World cinema). The movie was well worth the hunt, more, in fact. It is one of the most impressive movies I have seen in sometime.
Dogme95 is a film-making movement initially drafted by Thomas Vintenberg and Lars von Trier, in opposition of the Hollywood enchantment with special effects and expensive sets. They drew out a manifesto and took the vow of chastity, resolving to make films as per the rules of the Dogme. Some of the more prominent rules were to shoot on location using a hand-held camera, abandon props, lighting and sets and make the whole movie in present time.
Though von Trier’s Breaking the Waves was heavily influenced by the idea behind this manifesto, that movie was not a strictly Dogme movie. Festen was the first movie to follow the movement, though I suppose even this deviated from the rule of giving no directorial credits.
The Dogme rule appear very stringent at first, almost unnecessarily ascetic . It is only on watching the movie that one can appreciate how connected you feel when the peripheral effects and cleverness of filming is removed from the narrative and you can focus on the performances and the story.
Of course, the plot of the film is quite appropriate for a Dogme film and lends itself excellently to filming with a hand-held camera. It is a variation on the much-used theme of a happy family union becoming explosive and ugly. With the slightly awkward and shaky camera shoot, it feels like watching a home video of a birthday party. At some times you feel that you are the ignored guest on the show (like Harry in Dumbledore’s pensieve) doing the shooting yourself.
The reunion is slightly tainted from the start, with the recent suicide of a daughter. It gets uglier when the elder son Christian makes a drastic accusation at his father. The fact that the most dramatic moment of the movie is so undramatic is what instantly made the movie so lovable. Hardly anyone in the party reacted at all to the speech. In a minute they went back to their festivities and chatter. Confused with the reaction, I had to replay the scene to make sure I had heard it right.
The movie is about exposing a dysfunctional family, but it also expresses the tenuous connections of families and the dilemma of hating your dear ones. When the film begins, Christian and his father still seem to share an affection despite what Christian knows he is going to say. Throughout the movie, passionate reactions and denials spurt out of the family, to protect their own despite their repugnance. The wife continues to shield her husband with generous claims of love and happiness – it is very hard to understand her stance and as Christian puts it – her hypocrisy is disgusting. But for someone who has accepted an ugly truth, it also seemed like the only way to react – to continue that acceptance.
Christian’s character is singularly impressive. His dilemma and discomfort with the confrontation is plainly evident. Ulrich Thomsen is a brilliant actor, and his intensity shines through even the dull print and a simplistic hand-held camera.
I have come across wide criticism of the movie, which is more the criticism for sincerity of the Dogme95. I do think that it is overly dramatic to lay down a manifesto with drastic rules and take a vow of chastity, if all you want to make films without external hogwash. Also, it can be argued that the extensive editing done post-shooting is an artificial step too. However, the manifesto is only background information. There are different ways of making a movie and the technique used in Festen serves its theme and purpose well, making it a very compelling movie.