Danish Thomas Vinterberg's FESTEN from 1998 is, in my not-so-humble opinion, the greatest movie of the The Danish New Wave which began in the 90's with Ole Bornedal's cynical thriller NATTEVAGTEN from 1994, and sadly is on the verge of ending now (2007) - ironically again with Bornedal as a front-runner. However FESTEN remains a remarkable testament to a time in Danish cinema history where directors managed to bridge the gap between art and mainstream, at first in the early 90's by reaching the audiences in eye-hight with movies that had a realistic feeling to them, and then in the late 90's with the Dogme95 movement that gained Danish cinema a success it hadn't experienced since the silent-movie era of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Benjamin Christensen. Thomas Vinterberg was/is a member of the Dogme95 brotherhood created by Lars von Trier, and FESTEN was the first movie directed under the 10 rules of the Dogme95 manifesto, which provocateur Ole Bornedal recently dubbed nothing but "a smart producer trick" in the Danish movie magazine Ekko.
FESTEN is a so-called docu-drama that deals with the consequences of incest, family secrets, family relations, and family rituals. It depicts the Danish mentality by putting the Danish upper-class family Klingenfeldt on display. There happens so much between the lines in the Klingenfeldt family. The consequences of the family father Helge's (Henning Moritzen) incestuous cruelties to his four children in the past are obvious: the sister (Lene Laub Oksen) has recently committed suicide, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) has a strained relationship to the women of his life, Helene (so-called Dogme-queen Paprika Steen) is a paradoxical upper-class eccentric hippie-type who smokes weed, and little-brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) is a violent screw-up who won't acknowledge the truth about his father. However Helge is never portrayed as an arch-typical villain. He is brilliantly portrayed by Henning Moritzen as a realistic three-dimensional character. In FESTEN everyone is pretentious and cool on the surface, but the pain and secrets of these characters shines through the social hypocrisy constantly - therefore it's more a story about the unspoken than the spoken.
When the guests arrive at Helge's 60th birthday celebration party, Helge and his wife (Birthe Neumann), the two sons and the remaining daughter welcome them at the entrance. We hear how everything said is excruciatingly superficial and stupid. The words, the hand-shakes and the hugs don't mean anything. Don't they have anything substantial to say to each other? In another scene Christian exposes the family secret in his first speech, however the dinner guests just ignore it, and keep going on, as if nothing has happened. It takes Christian three more speeches, and one from Helene reading aloud the suicide letter from her sister, before the truth is acknowledged. It's shocking to see the guests sit there and do nothing! This is the typical Danish mentality: nobody wants to interfere - everybody minds their own business. Helge confronts Christian merely to manipulate him into thinking he is insane! In a third scene scene the social misfit Michael makes the dinner guests, unaware of their wrong-doing, sing aloud the old seemingly innocent, however really underneath racist Danish song 'Jeg har set en rigtig negermand' in order to provoke Helene and her African-American boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah). This scene implicates Michael's insecurity and displays Danish racism at its worst. There are many more scenes worth high-lighting, but these three are great examples.
Everything works in FESTEN: the fully-developed three-dimensional characters, the acting, the innovative hand-held Dogme95 camera style, Vinterberg's and Mogens Rukov's manuscript. Many has hypothetically tried posing the question: what did the Dogme95 rules do for FESTEN that it couldn't have done without? I say everything. One has to realize that everything that worked so beautifully in this gem was worked out on basis of the (paradoxically liberating) limitations of the manifesto. Every decision from the manuscript (real locations, genre-movies not allowed etc.) to the acting is made on the basis of Dogme95. If stylish camera and lighting setups were a possibility the harsh realism and fly-on-the-wall-feeling of it wouldn't have been achieved, and it wouldn't have been the same movie. As Lars von Trier put it: "Limitations are liberating" meaning that complete freedom leaves one with too many options, so creating rules is just a way of setting up the playground.
I have a particular fondness for this movie. FESTEN along with the second and third Dogme95 movies, Lars von Trier's IDIOTERNE from 1998 and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's MIFUNES SIDSTE SANG from 1999 introduced me to a more intelligent and interesting way to approach movie-watching. FESTEN has an arty feeling to it. Apparently the time was just right for such a movie, but as aforementioned it managed to bridge the gap between art and mainstream. It's a dark, funny, and intelligent movie. Perhaps the humor made it so easy to swallow for audiences world-wide in spite of the arty hand-held camera-style and raw realism. What surprises me to this day is its international success, because the tone of the movie is Danish (I would think). Perhaps the social hypocrisy portrayed in FESTEN, which feels so Danish, is in fact a world-wide phenomenon. Watch this! 10/10
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