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Festen

(The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 1998)


 


That smiling terrorist of world cinema, Lars von Trier, managed perhaps his greatest coup when he forced the media to pay lavish attention to the Dogma 95 Manifesto – a crazy document dreamt up with a few pals one night.

With its ‘vow of chastity’, the Dogma obliges all who follow it to strip their cinematic palette to a bare minimum – in the hope of avoiding the phoniness and slickness of many ‘mainstream’ movies.

Thomas Vinterberg was the first to take this leap: Festen (otherwise known as The Celebration) predates von Trier’s The Idiots (1998). The good news is that, when the hype and nonsense of the Dogma manifesto is well and truly forgotten, Festen will still be an admired film.

In its broad outline, Festen resembles Soft Fruit (1999): both are about the reunion of a massively dysfunctional family. The stern Helge (Henning Moritzen) gathers his remaining children – and a gaggle of Masonic brothers – to celebrate his 60th birthday.

In the course of the boisterous dinner, he calls upon his sensitive son, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), to bear witness to the family history – and he doesn’t like what he hears.

As an upstairs-downstairs comedy of manners, Festen recalls Paul Bartel’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). As a drama, it puts sombre (if well-worn) issues on the agenda. But this is, after all, a Dogma movie – which instantly places it in another, not necessarily favourable arena.

There are at least two ways of taking the Dogma. Judging by interviews with Harmony Korine (Gummo, 1997), his Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) evinces an almost religious adherence to the Danes’ manifesto as an ascetic means of cinematic purification.

Vinterberg seems to take a lighter approach, essentially treating the Dogma prescriptions as a dare. His mock-submission to the discipline of the Dogma is not without precedent.

Resourceful artists have always used limits and rules (such as the sonnet structure) as a spur to creativity. An entire modern, literary movement named Oulipo (including Italo Calvino among its certified members) bases itself on games and procedures of ‘literary constraint’.

The Dogma document speaks of “forcing the truth out of… characters and settings”. Is Festen merely a fumble towards some vague ideal of raw truth, leaning heavily on psycho-dramatic outbursts and shaky, hand-held camera work? Hardly.

The quality of the film comes from its craft – and that craft appears to have been devised in direct response to the constraints set by the Dogma. For instance, Vinterberg exploits the unities of time and place – in the process giving enormous expressive power to the passing of the hours and the various, separate zones of the house.

The film also uses that jittery, in-your-face style now familiar from von Trier’s career and a dozen law-and-order TV programs. But Vinterberg turns this procedure into a subtle, varied, almost classical mode, in the service of a breathtakingly wide range of moody effects.

Although Festen plumbs a standard gothic rendition of the nuclear family – with intimations everywhere of crime, complicity and dirty secrets – a very droll, finely poised wit lightens the load of recriminations. As in von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994), a camp sensibility hovers at all times, but never destroys the substance of the story.

Festen is a unique treat.

MORE Dogma: Italian for Beginners

© Adrian Martin November 1999


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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