Festen October 10, 2015
You haven’t been to a dinner party from hell until you’ve attended the festivities of Festen, a visceral drama featuring events more nightmarish than anything you could ever imagine happening prior to a family event.
Most dread trivial reacquaintances, like getting stuck chatting with your aunt who peaked in high school, revisiting the cousins you never much got along with in the first place, or getting awkwardly kissed by elder relatives you couldn’t admit the birthdays of if they asked. It’s not ideal to socialize with people you were born into socializing with — but it’s much more enjoyable than the harrowing experience the Hansen family endures over a cold weekend in 1998, where the sixtieth birthday of patriarch Helge (Henning Moritzen) goes awry following a startling confession.
The get-together, held at the family-run hotel, is already a breeding ground of heavy tension: recently, eldest daughter Linda (Lene Laub Oksen) committed suicide in one of the building’s several bathrooms. Though her death is tragic, the family is past the mourning phase — the circumstances surrounding her demise are unknown to most, the majority of the family looking at it as a fatal bout of depression.
But Linda’s twin brother, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), knows the truth. Linda didn’t kill herself because of ever-mounting stress or a particularly bad case of melancholy — she killed herself because of the sexual abuse she, along with Christian, endured as children at the hands of their father. Being the eldest two kids, their younger siblings, Helene (Paprika Steen) and Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), know nothing of the abuse. So when Christian’s toast to his sister at dinner turns out to be a startling confrontation, the family, bourgeois and prosperous, is thrust into a long-winded state of denial, eventually transforming into civil turmoil.
Famously, Festen was the first film released under the short-lived reign of Dogme 95, a movement conceived by Vinterberg and Lars von Trier that was designed to take the most naturalistic aspects of filmmaking and put them in the place of the more conventional, costly characteristics of modern moviemaking. Most noticeably, the era utilized handheld, digital cinematography, unnervingly realistic performances, and an unshakable feeling of voyeurism rather than passive entertainment. In 2015, such practices are hardly revolutionary — by now, mumblecore and grittily minded horror movies have taken Dogme’s place — but in the ‘90s, it was unheard of, save for the John Cassavetes pictures rarely watched by the mainstream.
Festen, along with von Trier’s The Idiots, are the best known films of the movement — and though The Idiots is still unseen by me, I am prematurely certain that Festen is the superior of the two: it is a feat of filmmaking that goes far beyond the gimmicky nature of Dogme itself and stands as an unshakable black comedy that progressively becomes a moving drama.
It begins with the same attitude we carry when attending family reunions, one of barely-there excitement soon eclipsed by decided anxiety. Without the knowledge of what’s to come, we can only laugh at the appalling behavior of Michael, who, upon his introduction, kicks his entire family out of the car to give the walking Christian a ride to the hotel, despite enough room. We can smile at the way Helene’s workaholic nature deteriorates as the family gathers and she is once again looked at as a child who grew up and became successful. Even the uneasy relationships presented pass by with an uncomfortable chuckle — we’ve felt that very same tension, and a sort of relief washes over us as we realize that we don’t have to partake in conversation ourselves.
But once Christian’s toast at dinner turns the reunion into a revelatory exhibition of abuse, we, along with the invitees, don’t know how to react. Though we’re disgusted by everyone’s instantaneous denial (they all go back to eating as if nothing happened once the accused is spotlighted), part of us wonders if we’d do the same — would we ignore a bombshell just to continue on the cumbersome path we dreaded to embark on in the first place?
With its voyeuristic camerawork, fearless direction, and too-close-for-comfort performances, Festen asks us to at once empathize with and detachedly look at the horrifics. It is painfully confessional and painstakingly well-conceived — the story, involving and often times funny, is well-suited for the rules of the Dogme. Vinterberg’s direction is so effortless it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that everything we’re seeing onscreen is spontaneous, completely in the moment; but when we leave the theater speechless, stunned, it’s clear that the intended effect was not to execute a forgettable exercise in celluloid eccentricities but to take us on a journey far too disturbing, far too poignant, to ever lose sight of.
Some have questioned the tone — is it farcical or is it unflinchingly realistic? — but Vinterberg doesn’t strive for either label. It’s a slice of life with too much crust, carrying an abundance of grit and not enough joy. And yet you can never take your eyes off the screen, either because the actors so perfectly embody Vinterberg’s vision or because the cinematography, appearing in-the-moment at first glance, stunningly reflects the film’s events.
As Festen closes, we’re well aware that we’ll never have an experience quite like it, and that Christian will never have a moment during his lifetime that won’t be haunted by his past. The final shot, a close-up of his thoughtful face, is shrouded in silence but says more than anything most films could ever dream of. Despite the emptying of inner-demons, the unforgivable can never be forgotten; an emotional scar can never be lightened by an over-the-counter topical