The Dogme 95 movement was the brainchild of Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who created a manifesto in 1995 for lo-fi filmmaking that eschewed special effects and the use of technology in order to highlight story, acting and thematic designs, elements they felt were gradually diminishing in importance in the eyes of studios. Their cost-conscious ‘vow of chastity’ included ten simple rules, such as ‘the camera must be handheld’ and ‘special lighting is not acceptable’, and even stated that the director of the film should not be credited. Three years later Vinterberg’s Festen became the first Dogme film to be released – its full title in Denmark was ‘Dogme #1 – Festen‘ – and it received critical acclaim, jointly winning the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1998.
Vinterberg’s film is set during a period of 24 hours (give or take) and features a large family as they gather to celebrate the 60th birthday of imposing patriarch Helge (Henning Moritzen). Helge is a successful businessman, a Freemason and a well-regarded member of the community, and his family owns the grand country hotel in which the party is taking place. Subdued eldest son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) has travelled from Paris to attend, while the younger, aggressive Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) arrives with his children and wife Mette (Helle Dolleris), with whom he argues continually. There is also a well-travelled older daughter named Helene (Paprika Steen). It transpires that Helge’s youngest daughter, Linda, has recently committed suicide; no-one initially appears to have considered cancelling the birthday party in the wake of this tragic death, and so a couple of dozen aunts, uncles and cousins are in attendance, all acting as if nothing has happened. This kind of behaviour continues when a disturbing family secret is suddenly revealed during dinner, with most relatives preferring to carry on with festivities rather than face the awful truth they are presented with.
Straight away we see that this is a family in turmoil, not least because of the suicide. Michael is violent, abusive and drinks heavily, and he has had an affair with Michelle (Therese Glahn), one of the hotel maids, who has subsequently had an abortion. He is eager to impress his father, but Helge’s disdain for his youngest son is obvious. Meanwhile Helene finds Linda’s suicide note and hides it away, shocked by the contents, while Christian’s upsetting revelations – repeatedly delivered to the entire family after initially being ignored by all and sundry – result in him being forcibly ejected by his younger brother and tied to a tree in the nearby woods. There is a sense that these individuals are bound by name and blood but have scattered to different parts of the world in order to keep some distance between one another, yet oddly there is an unspoken, strong bond shared by the three remaining siblings which ensures that the events that take place during the party have no lasting impact on their relationships (even after a drunk Michael racially abuses Helene’s black boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah)). When we see them breakfasting the next morning they act as if nothing has happened, and when he finally lets his violent urges loose it is clear that Michael is firmly on Christian’s side.
Watching the numerous reactions during the eventful meal in the wake of ‘the revelation’ is fascinating as characters do not generally respond in ways that we would expect. Helge threatens Christian. Helge’s wife Else (Birthe Neumann) is living in a state of denial, and joins her husband in suggesting that her son has long-standing mental issues that have caused him to make up malicious stories. The brothers and sisters have long-standing relationships with the staff of the hotel, and it’s interesting to note that Christian’s only support initially comes from Head Chef and friend Kim (Bjarne Henriksen) and waitress / lover Pia (Trine Dyrholm), rather than any family members.
Festen is cheaply-made. There’s barely any music. It’s full of technical faults but, importantly, it isn’t amateurish. Vinterberg uses a Handycam, as per the Dogme rules, and allied to the intimacy that results – you feel like a guest throughout, eavesdropping on conversations – the director actively pursues a certain stuttering awkwardness, moving around his characters with alacrity and shooting from contrasting angles (for example he begins scenes with the camera looking down from a corner of a room before finishing by filming upwards, from the floor). While you’re aware of the self-imposed limitations while watching it’s clear that Vinterberg was inspired to experiment as a result, and it also looks as if the time saved by ignoring the quest for technical perfection (there are a lot of blown highlights) has been well spent on other matters; a great deal of attention has been paid to the characters, for example, and though some behaviour is extreme, many of their interactions and reactions ring true.
Perhaps it’s too simplistic to suggest that Vinterberg was the Sex Pistols to von Trier’s The Clash, but there are parallels between the Dogme movement and punk: both presented direct challenges to the perceived accepted norms in their respective arts, both championed a DIY can-do spirit and both shared a general dislike of excess or overproduction, instead making use of whatever was available to hand. Both were essentially sincere movements that quickly turned into gimmicks. And both were eventually abandoned by the most successful proponents. Von Trier has ploughed an idiosyncratic path through the movie industry since the Dogme break-up in 2005 that has even (gasp!) seen the inclusion of special effects (Melancholia), while more recently Vinterberg has embraced slightly bigger budgets, making the well-regarded Submarino and Jagten (The Hunt) along the way.
Dogme wasn’t just a direct challenge to the film industry in the late 1990s; it was also a gauntlet laid down to contemporaries for the future (and it quickly inspired the likes of actor Jean-Marc Barr and Harmony Korine, who released their own Dogme-approved works within a few years). But appraising the movement today is difficult, considering its most celebrated proponents have essentially abandoned the ideas behind it, though their constricting rules were never going to last. It certainly felt fresh at the time, but has it really changed anything? Wasn’t it all just a long, drawn out publicity stunt? The proponents say ‘no’, but like the punk bands before them they clearly benefitted from flavour-of-the-month media interest.
If we are to ask more simply whether Festen was a success, or whether it remains relevant today, then the answer to both questions is a resounding ‘yes’. It succeeds in spite of its technical imperfections, and proves that a well-written story and good acting will always be worth watching, whatever the budget and whatever other failings it may have. Its shifting tone – the film initially resembles farce before veering oddly between black comedy and grimly-serious melodrama – is at first baffling but gradually begins to feel normal (tragedy and comedy, tears and laughter, go hand-in-hand in real life). The performances are strong enough to draw you in and hold your attention throughout, and it’s a very good film, but I suspect it may well have been without the strict adherence to the Dogme rules. Who knows?
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg.
Written by: Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov.
Starring: Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen, Birthe Neumann, Trine Dyrholm, Helle Dolleris.
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle.
Editing: Valdís Óskarsdóttir.
Music: Lars Bo Jensena.
Running Time: 100 minutes.