Festen

A man walks along a country road, carrying a freshly pressed suit over his shoulder. He answers his mobile and tells the caller he is back home, ‘in his father’s country’, before telling them he is on the way and will see them shortly. He hangs up. The setting is the Danish countryside, flat and undramatic as far as the eye can see. We first see the young man in a wide, long-range shot. The scene has a Shakespearean air to it, or perhaps like the opening of a Western. But underneath the surface bubbles a different intent than that of the man’s compatriot Prince Hamlet or of vengeful gunslingers. Christian, the man, has come not to avenge the father but to slay him.

Or, more precisely, to slay his reputation; Christian is going home, to the house where he spent most of his childhood, to attend a family celebration for his father’s sixtieth birthday. Gathered are the family, Christian’s parents, grandparents, brother and sister. There is a host of other guests, whom we must presume to be friends or business associates of the family because we learn little about any of them. Christian’s twin sister Linda has recently committed suicide, in the house itself and Christian has finally decided the time has come to make a disclosure. During dinner when making the speech expected of him as the elder son, Christian informs the gathering that his father Helge, repeatedly raped him and Linda when they were children, under the cover of the countless baths Helge took in the country house, making him, in his son’s mocking words ‘a very clean man’.

Festen, or The Celebration, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, was the first film made under the strictures of Dogme 95, the manifesto drawn up by a clearly bored and frustrated Lars Von Trier. It set ten rules – and a ‘vow of chastity’ that filmmakers were enjoined to obey. These included using only natural light, shooting on location, eschewing non-diegetic music. Each film would be issued with a ‘Dogme 95’ certificate that would precede screenings, not unlike the grainy censor’s certificates of old. In a further twist each filmmaker was also allowed to break one of the rules (in Vinterberg’s case, it was building a set for the country house-hotel’s reception area). Furthermore, each filmmaker would be only allowed make one film under the strictures; once done, they would move on with their careers.

Vinterberg had directed one feature before then, the little seen (and even to this day, rarely screened) The Biggest Heroes. Festen became an international arthouse hit, partly because of the cachet of Dogme 95, which few people really seemed to understand, ascribing far more films to it than were actually made, and also because it broached a subject that was, for want of a better word, fashionable in fiction and film in the 1990s: child abuse. In reality though the film is only tangentially about paedophilia and it is only Ulrich Thomsen’s superb performance as the evidently tortured Christian that keeps the gravity of the matter in sight.

After Christian’s announcement, which he repeats first in more graphic detail, and a second time, accusing his mother of having turned a blind eye when once surprising her husband in the act, the film turns into a comedy of manners. The bombshell is disturbing not so much for its disclosure than for its rupture of the evening’s calm, and for its questioning of the father as the head of the family. The well-being of the father-as-symbol concerns the gathered guests more than what might happen to Hilge if he is delivered to the police, as he challenges his son to do. Épater les bourgeois is not simply Vinterberg’s intention, it is his theme. Christian is denounced for his poor taste and his younger brother Michael, childish to a fault, and himself a lousy father of three, turns on him, dragging him away from the dinner party and tying him up in the neighbouring forest. But Christian keeps coming back, righteous like his name, and appearing at the table, like Banquo at the feast in MacBeth.

By this time, Christian, and the rupture he represents can no longer be repressed. His grandmother singing soothing traditional songs to the gathering will not suffice. A nastier tone takes over. The black boyfriend of Christian’s sister Helene is subjected to racial abuse first by Michael and then by what seems to be all the guests, who sing an old racist song whose influence has weathered well the years of Danish Social Democracy and political correctness. It is going a bit too far to say ‘there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark’ as one laughably pretentious review from the time of its release suggested, but the rules of the game are now changed. Or maybe not changed, just shifted a little. This culminates in the conga-line that weaves its way through the house, itself a nod to Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, another director for whom fathers were often cold and sinister rather than loving parents. It is also worth pointing out that Henning Moritzen, who plays the father, first came to prominence as a young man in Bergman’s 1962 film Smiles of a Summer Night.

The moral order is restored at the end, over breakfast the following morning, ultimately at no cost to the social order. It is unfair to call Festen a conservative film but it is far less radical than its association with the supposedly revolutionary Dogme manifesto suggested it was. Vinterberg could have made the same film equally as well using traditional industry methods, a bigger budget and more sumptuous lighting – if he’d waited another ten years, he might have been able to get that from developments in HD video alone. All the film’s technical tics – the jump cuts, the fish-eye shots of hotel rooms and kitchens, the frenetic handheld zooms  – are just marginalia.  But most of the Dogme films were like that – conventional films made in a slightly unconventional way. The one that stood out as not being conventional was the one that bore the certificate ‘Dogme #2’, The Idiots, directed by the manifesto’s mastermind Von Trier. In fact, so inventive and so supple in its manipulation of Dogme’s formal possibilities was The Idiots, you suspect that the whole thing was concocted by him to help his career along. True, other Dogme directors have gone on to bigger things, such as Susanne Bier, Lone Scherfig and Harmony Korine but none has managed to slay the father himself. Von Trier, whether one likes him or not, remains the biggest draw in Danish cinema.

Vinterberg did little of note for more than a decade afterwards. Two confused films It’s All About Love and Dear Wendy followed. Von Trier co-wrote the script for the latter, a film so wretched that you think the older director’s involvement was a cruelly capricious means of putting the younger pretender in his place. Vinterberg found his feet again with the 2009 film Submarino, in which a widowed junkie wastes away his relationship with his son, while his ex-con brother still has not recovered from the cot-death of their younger brother, on their watch as neglected children. It’s a film where fatherhood is thwarted, endangered and deferred. But this time, Vinterberg is a good deal gentler on dads, or potential dads.

Originally published by Under the Influence – The Daddy Issue.