REVIEW: DVD Release: Festen

Film: Festen
Release date: 13th October 2008
Certificate: 15
Running time: 100 mins
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen, Birthe Neumann
Genre: Crime/Drama
Studio: Metrodome
Format: DVD
Country: Denmark/Sweden

There is a recognised syndrome human beings have called 'car crash syndrome'. If you pass the scene of an accident, or witness one happening, even though you shouldn't, you can't help but look. Some films are car crashes without meaning to be, whilst others are carefully directed so that you can never look away from the screen. Festen, Thomas Vinterberg’s award-winning Dogme ’95 film, is of the latter.

Have you ever been to a family party? Relatives you only see once a year asking about your career, your marriage, your health. This is a tedious task on any occasion, but what if the party you were going to was a traditional upper-class Danish birthday party?

Christian, Michael and Helene are all grown-up children of wealthy upper-class Helge, who has summoned them and the rest of their large family to his home to celebrate his sixtieth birthday.

Rather than the quiet pat on the back and sing-song he had hoped for, Helge gets a nasty surprise from Christian, as the film deals with the fallout from a massive family secret being unearthed.

Festen was critical to the Dogme '95 movement in cinema. A group of directors tired with glossy Hollywood productions decided to strip back film, thus creating "true cinema.” The belief was that without special effects your script would be bare, and therefore better. It is hard to argue with the movement once you have watched Festen, which has one of the most original plots to any film. Following strict rules (and a declaration Vinterberg signed to ensure he stuck to them), Festen lacks a soundtrack, studio lighting, props that were not already on set, and any camera tricks. Instead, it relies on a gripping story and meticulous script to carry the film - full of suspenseful silences and believable human interaction.

From a technical point of view, Festen does a good job of using whatever comes to hand in order to get the intended shot. Because of his declaration that he would not use any special effects, Vinterberg had to come up with other ways of conveying what he wanted to the audience. The film sometimes deals with a ghost that may or may not be haunting the house (shots filmed through rippled glass, and only lit by candle light), whilst the credit sequence, accompanied by a music-box, gives an wonderful, otherworldly feel. Trying to figure out how the director pulled off some of his more elaborate effects is one of the joys of a film that implores repeat viewing.

The film has an eerie calmness throughout. The setting of rolling hills and forests of the Danish countryside, and the suppression of any real emotion that comes with an upper-class upbringing, make scenes almost serene - particularly one that follows a bird flying above the house, a perfectly quiet shot without any music, allowing for a tranquil moment despite the chaos roaming below.

Festen is classed as a drama, but it would be fair to say there is a lot of black comedy on offer, too. Often laughing at the human reactions of the guests at the party is the only way to cope with the very real ongoing trauma that the protagonists are going through. A lot of the comedy comes from the party guests - their trivial conversation and griping about the weather is welcome relief from the tension of the dinner table.

The acting for this film is impeccable - the mannerisms and believability of the characters are faultless. Whether it's Christian's stiff, tense stance throughout the film, or Helene's powerful breakdowns, you become fully immersed in their feelings and fears. Worth paying real attention to is Michael, who switches from likable buffoon to maniac at the flick of a switch. He also provides many laughs throughout the film, acting as additional comic relief.

The one fault with Festen that has come to light is the bad translation in the subtitles. They have never had a reworking since the film's release in 1995, and some of the dialogue is incorrect – you have to look past the occasional weird comments that make no sense.

Unconventionally filmed, Festen has deservedly won multiple awards for its innovative and the director’s courage, whilst unlike other Dogme films, it is never hard going or self-indulgent. RC

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