Festen and Danish National Cinema

Film, Exhibition & Curation student Sarah Rice explores some ideas around Festen and Danish National Cinema (Submitted as coursework Nov 2012)

National Cinemas are not easy to define and in Alan Williams’ Film and Nationalism, he states that since there is no specific, single universal conversation being had on the topic, many definitions are being formulated. For the sake of introduction and simple understanding, national cinemas can be defined as movements born from specific countries and their political, economic, and cultural movements and backgrounds. In Film in the Public Space, we have explored this concept through a few different national windows. Specifically, we have looked at French Colonialism through the Battle of Algiers and the Danish Dogme 95 Manifesto through Thomas Vintenberg’s 1998 feature film Festen and Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.

 The film Festen, or The Celebration, is what is known as the first film (Dogme #1) to come from the Dogme 95 Movement created by both Vinterberg and Danish director Lars Von Trier as a means of shaking up the contemporary film circuit and breathing something new into production. The highly acclaimed film, which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival amongst other numerous awards, is about a upper class family coming together for their Father’s 60th Birthday celebrations at their family-run hotel. Over the course of an evening, past truths are revealed, including the eldest son exposing the revelation that his twin sister, having committed suicide recently within that very hotel, had done so as a result of the emotional trauma stemming from being raped by their father. As the horror is revealed through a series of failed dinner toasts, so do the surrealist tendencies of the party guests increase as the actual celebration never seems to end. The result is a realistic portrayal of controversial topics and the surreal ignorance that is introduced as an avoidance mechanism in dealing with such drama. The film adhered to the rules of simplistic filmmaking, camera movements lacking in flair and rigged setups, and no special effects or gimmicks of the Dogme Manifesto. The goal of the movement was the purification of filmmaking by creating rules and subsequently breaking them as they went along.

The conversation born from our screening pushed our class into recognising the conventions as a style akin to reality television. What we see is real life, or what we are supposed to perceive as real life through the lens of the camera. What we are met with in terms of story, like reality shows, is sometimes shocking, creating twist and turns from people’s almost animalistic emotions. Another topic that came up in conversation was, surprisingly given the content, how many people enjoyed viewing the film. Though the topic of rape and incest was heavy and quite hard to stomach at times, it was through our discussion that we realised that a film so stripped down of style is allowed a much smarter stance on substance. It is self aware but unpretentious in its usage of the code. Everything becomes about the characters and the actors’ performances. The three siblings Christian, Helene, and Michael, played by Ulrich Thomsen, Paprika Steen, and Thomas Bo Larsen respectively, and the father, played by Henning Moritzen, all delivered almost perfect character performances very similar to onstage, theatrical acting. They had no props, special cinematography, music, or set design to propel off of, using innate human emotion to deliver the very complex, twisting and turning narrative. The editing and post-work relied on very simple editing techniques allowing the viewers to catch the very subtle, yet intricate camera movements done in hand held. The montage scene cutting back and forth between the siblings in their rooms and the scenarios that were playing out in each was particularly smart, revealing, and effective filmmaking.

The Dogme 95 movement is a perfect example of Danish National Cinema, even as a self-produced movement, because the world has come to recognise these conventions as inherently Danish over the course of the last almost 20 years. Festen is a beautiful film, stripped bare and naked of the self satisfaction that, as viewers, we try to achieve through big budget filmmaking. Recent 21st century developments in both consumer and professional camera equipment have made it simultaneously easier to get away from the Hollywood aesthetic and create the penchant that most National Cinemas have for reliance on story. If Festen was made today, the quality of the image may have looked better, but the performances would not have popped as before by comparison.Festen’s success rests in its ability to be rugged and rough around the edges. The innatequalities of some Dogme 95 films create a naturalism that cannot be found in most Hollywood produced film. Even the differences between Festen and Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, a Danish film we also screened in class, are apparent, and this is why I believe Vinterberg’s creation as a first go at the movement is a perfect standard example of self created and self aware national cinema.