Dogme 95 was an avant-garde film-making movement, started out as a collective involving four Danish directors: Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring. It was launched with a manifesto in 1995. The manifesto set out ten film-making rules, known as the ‘Vow of Chastity.’ It mainly specifies to use handheld cameras, with the cameras following the actors rather than actors moving to where the camera is; color film stock and natural lightning; Academy 35mm format and only contemporary stories. They also prohibit optical work and filters, superficial action involving guns and murders. Most provocatively, they insist that the director must not be credited. According to some reports, Von Trier and Vinterberg drew up the manifesto in a mere twenty-five minutes, amid gales of laughter.
Thomas Vinterberg's “Festen” (The Celebration, 1998) was the movie first Dogme movie. Shot on digital video, the film takes place at a country mansion where Helge (Henning Moritzen) invites his family to his sixtieth birthday celebration. Offering a toast at the banqueting table, Helge’s eldest son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) reveals why his twin sister Linda committed suicide: their father sexually abused them both when they were children.
“Festen” astounded audiences when it premiered at Cannes – as much because what looked like a home video seemed to have wandered on to the screen. By awarding the movie ‘Special Jury Prize’, Martin Scorsese and his jury legitimated digital video and low-budget film-making in the eyes of the world. It became most popular of the Dogme wave, hailed as the kind of success that could break Hollywood’s grip on Europe’s cinema-goers.
When Christian reveals the family secret in the guise of a celebratory toast, the guests attempt to take it for what it pretends to be and carry on with the festivities. The effectiveness of these scenes is due partly to the casting of Henning, a well-known Danish star. The extras playing the guests were not told about his role as child abuser in this film, so they reveal genuine surprise, or fail to realize Christian’s news altogether. This establishes the pattern of response to his revelations: Christian opens up cracks in the polite dinner-party façade, the rest of the family and the German toastmaster use dinner party rituals – further toasts, music and dancing next door – to reseal the façade and sustain appearances.
When Christian makes his second charge that his father murdered his sister, his brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) and some other guests forcibly eject him from the house. The ritual of manners only ceases to work when Christian’s other sister Helene (Paprika Steen) agrees to read Linda’s suicidal note, which she had hidden in her pill case. When Gbatokai, Helene’s African-American boyfriend, arrives at the party, we learn more about the family’s insularity by their attitudes to him. Michael starts up a racist Danish song to taunt him, evoking the swing towards the xenophobic far right in Denmark’s contemporary political climate.
In addition to race, Festen foregrounds class issues. The drift for change comes from the servants, who steal the guests’ car keys to prevent them from leaving and to ensure that they hear Christian out. With its country house and upper middle-class dinner party, Festen contains more than shades of Bergman (“Fanny and Alexander” (1982)) as well as Luis Bunuel’s satire of bourgeois dinner rituals (“Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). However, Festen’s handheld home camcorder style, with its restless, jerky camerawork, gives it an edgy quality, introducing an amateurish desperation into the scrutiny of intimate lives. The dizzy camerawork underlines the sense of disorientation, unease and moral chaos – the loss of control in a setting where behavior is supposed to be controlled.
Operating a small digital camera, cameraman Anthony DodMantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) mingles with actors like an extra guest at the party, sometimes physically intervening in the action. This explains the first scene when Michael orders his wife Mette and his children out of the car to make room for Christian; there would indeed not be enough room with the cameraman too. Moreover, the cameraman’s knowledge of narrative events appeared to be just restricted as ours – he is often taken by surprise, as when the angry Mette jostles the camera.
Festen's style is very confrontational. Shock cuts abound, as in the abrupt sound cut when Helene screams, hits the wall and then is sick in the bathroom after her quiet decorum at the table. Festen is widely accredited as an acting triumph, but that doesn’t mean other stylistic devices are redundant. For example, Dod Mantle’s cinematography makes use of available light to convey the story’s darkening mood. As the evening wears on and light diminishes, the pixels become increasingly visible, suggesting that the image is disintegrating just as family falls apart.
The film also manages to tell a ghost story within the confines of the rules, thereby exceeding narrow concepts of realism. When Helene finds Linda’s suicide note, the film cuts to shots of Christian’s girlfriend Pia (Trine Dyrholm) submerged in the bath, suggesting the drowned sister’s ghostly presence. Slow-motion shots and static overhead shots indicate that we are now outside the agitated viewpoint of the cameraman/guest who dominates the rest of the film. Slow motion announces Linda’s presence again when Christian collapses and hallucinates. Yet, because Dogme rules forbid special effects and flashbacks, we actually never leave the here-and-now.
A persistently ringing phone punctuates this hallucinating sequence, existing both as a reality within the hallucination – Linda’s call to Christian from the spirit world – and as the reality that wakes him, an actual telephone call come from Helene. Dogme does not allow superimposed titles, hence opening and closing credits must be conveyed by other means. “Festen” uses pieces of paper-floating in water, another allusion to Linda’s presence outside the film.
Despite bleak and serious subject matter, “Festen” is a perfect marriage of content and form that lingers in the mind, forever.