The Dogme 95 manifesto, set out by Thomas Vinterberg, and Lars von Trier (later joined by two other Danish directors, Kristian Levring and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen), proved that rules do not always have to be stifling, nor even restrictive. Brainstormed as a riposte to Hollywood money, muscle and conformity, Dogme 95 stripped filmmaking down to the bone, forbidding extra props, use of additional lighting, separate soundtracks, the crediting of the director, and prescribing that all camera work should be hand-held. The manifesto was met with bafflement initially, and perhaps reasonably so. It sounds like another abstruse artistic movement with little relevance to commercial filmmaking, right?

In the event, Dogme in its first incarnation, Vinterberg's own Festen, proved much more approachable than it might have looked on paper. The rules turn out to be a gift and an opportunity for a talented director with a sparkling story like Vinterberg. His premise is simple. The extended family of an upper-crust Danish family man with a successul business empire gather at his country mansion to celebrate the patriarch's 60th birthday. Unsettlingly, this is against the backdrop of the recent suicide of his daughter, a twin and his youngest, and as the lavish party gets underway shocking revelations about the family's past come to light.

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Vinterberg quickly sketches in the family dynamic. Older brother Michael arrives, uninvited, and begins bullying his wife, the concierge of the mansion, and in between fits of uncontrollable rage at those around him, tries to ingratiate himself with his father - who has always seen him as the loser in the family. Christian is also there, coolly composed in the wake of his twin's death, and reserved towards his father and mother. Helene, another sister, is an anthropologist, well travelled and cosmopolitan, and brings with her the latest in a string of foreign boyfriends. Warm and diplomatic, through her own grief for her sister, she is trying to hold the family together.

The film hangs on Christian's attempts to reveal his father's abuse of him and his twin as children, as he makes several candid speeches to the gathered revellers at a pristine dinner table. Michael, unwilling to believe Christian's story and sensing an opportunity to win his father's approval, tries to kick him out. Christian, conflicted but undeterred, refuses to give up until he is heard from beginning to end; with the emergence of his twin's suicide note, it seems that the truth will finally out.

Festen's dour subject matter is treated without pathos or mawkishness. Instead, irreverent, wicked humour - often generated by Michael's explosive temper and ineptitude - is the signature of the film. As the domestic staff become conspirators with Christian in shaming his father and vindicating his sister, there is also the sense of a class-revolt or of the patients taking over the asylum. It's a protest at the absurd veneer of decorum that gilds this outwardly proper and prosperous family. In the space of 24 hours the old guard has been defeated and removed, and harmony has been restored.

The incessant movement of the hand-held camera proves not to be as seasickness-inducing as I'd feared. Rather it allows a very subtle and powerful inspection of the characters. It is also worth noting that this is a true ensemble piece, testing all of the cast without sacrificing characters or credibility of the narrative.

Festen is a delicious exercise in controlled, cathartic anarchy, worth watching for its singular, poignant story, its mirth and its fearlessness.

Reviewed on: 26 Oct 2008
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Skeletons fall out of the closet at a family birthday party.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ***

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Writer: Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov

Starring: Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen, Birthe Neumann, Trine Dyrholm

Year: 1998

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Denmark


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