Festen (1998)


A dysfunctional family has been the core of many films, secrets kept and unveiled, trauma, pain, estrangement and the lack of understanding- giving way to perverse outlets of tension, often at the cost of permanently severing relationships. The old give way to new- in case of both people and emotions and the temporal nature of life shines through. Festen, which is Danish for “celebration”, sketches the saga of a family assembling to celebrate Helge (Henning Mortizen), the patriarch’s 60th birthday. This film won the Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.


A shaky, hand-held camera with natural lighting is used for Festen and the style is naturalistic, with little or no post-production, giving it the appeal of a home movie. The viewer at once feels like a part of the setting, seated at the table along with the family during the tense dinner scene. The experience is pretty eerie, as you feel the probing eyes of Christian, the hasty way in which his mother attempts to cover (and feebly justify) for his scarred childhood, or the presence of the father. The characters become are presented to us in a realistic manner and we get to fathom the fabric of their personalities.

The twisted family dynamics is portrayed well with the aid of a remarkably taut screenplay and what we get is an effective family drama with dark undercurrents, put forward brilliantly with the aid of satire. The film focuses on abuse in relationships- bringing to the forefront the macabre nature of anomalous human sexuality, power equations within the family, bitterness and cruelty. Child abuse, racism and betrayal are at the heart of the movie and, it illustrates how arduous it can be to demarcate between love and hate when the line separating them is so thin. The scenes are harsh and raw and Vinterberg’s narrative technique is crisp and meticulous as the details of Christian’s troubled past are merely hinted with the aid of the laudable script and only very subtle hints from other family members that make us doubt Christian’s honesty.

Festen is a collage of highly probing characters. There is Christian, the passive, introverted son- played with restrained intensity by Ulrich Thomsen, his eyes haunt us long after the credits have rolled. He is not the kind of man who provokes others or incites a confrontation but this is one battle he must fight. He must purge his past and reach a sense of closure. Thomsen does a profound depiction of this severely trouble young man. Michael, who is essayed by Thomas Bo Larsen, is Christian’s older brother and diametrically opposite to him with regard to his character. Michael is depicted as a roguish, insensitive, blunt man who abuses his wife and has little regard for his family or anyone else around him- he is supremely conceited and selfish. Though it’s not clearly mentioned, it is pretty certain that Michael was a silent witness to the events that molded Christian’s life and which in turn hardened him. Helene, the younger sister is a masked character who hides her emotions and stifles the pain that engulfs her, Paprika Steen does absolute justice to her character. The central character, however, is that of Helge, the father, who affects and deconstructs the lives of those around him. He is the epitome of failed fatherhood- his failure lashed out on his children in a violent current of sexual abuse that he committed on them when they were children- helpless and mute under his control. The character of Helge is not limited to that of a mere brute, there are different dimensions to him. We almost feel sympathy for him when he is rejected by his family at the end of the movie at the breakfast table- his shame is juxtaposed with Christian’s vindication and his rejection is a sort of poetic justice for rthe suicide of Christian’s twin sister Linda who faced the same abuse that her brother did and could not come to terms with it. Festen is a powerful piece of post-modern cinema. Although it stands as the only notable title of a dying art form, Festen is one of most well executed movies of the Dogme genre.

A quick note on Dogme (much thanks to Wikipedia): Dogme 95 was an avant-garde filmmaking movement started in 1995 by the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who created the “Dogme 95 Manifesto” and the “Vow of Chastity”. These were rules to create film making based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology. They were later joined by fellow Danish directors Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, forming the Dogme 95 Collective or the Dogme Brethren. Dogme is the Danish word for dogma. The genre gained international appeal partly because of its accessibility. It sparked an interest in unknown filmmakers by suggesting that one can make a recognized film of a quality to gain recognition, without being dependent on commissions or huge Hollywood budgets. The directors used European government subsidies and television station funding instead.

Here’s a link to the trailer: