Some films are impossible to review without some discussion around their method of production. One such example of this is Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (AKA The Celebration). Critically acclaimed and hugely successful on release (including securing the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival), the major talking point around the film remains the fact that it was the flagship release under the DOGME 95 banner.

The brainchild of Vinterberg and fellow Dane Lars von Trier, the DOGME 95 manifesto was a set of rules known as the VOW OF CHASTITY (always in upper case!) that aim to reduce dependence on what the pair viewed as unnecesary filming techniques. The feeling was that modern filmmaking had placed emphasis on technical audiovisual aspects rather than on actors and drama. The prescriptive rules enforced everything from no special lighting to exclusive use of handheld cameras to allowing only sound recorded at the moment of filming.

As a result, the initial moments of Festen (officially known in Denmark as Dogme #1 – Festen) are disarming. Grainy DV, blown up to 35mm and shot in 4:3 ratio, gives a feeling somewhere between documentary and amateurish student videos. But, as the story unfolds, the aesthetic quickly becomes au fait as the drama takes centre stage – the DOGME 95 objective in practice.

Festen centres around the gathering of an upper class family for the 60th birthday celebrations of its patriarch, Helge Klingenfeldt-Hansen (Henning Moritzen) – soon after the mysterious death of his daughter, Linda. But what initially appears as a stuffy formal occasion begins to fragment as dark family secrets come crawling out of the woodwork.

The drama of the film manages to be both unpredictable and absorbing, helped by the immediacy of the DOGME 95 style and some strong lead performances, most notably by Ulrich Thomsen as the traumatised son Christian and Thomas Bo Larsen as his increasingly unhinged brother Michael. The style is not a total success, however. Its adherence to natural lighting results in some scenes being gloomy to the point that actors’ performances are obscured rather than exposed clearly as intended.

The character-driven story of Festen saw it top a number of critics’ polls in the year of its release, including many Stateside where it was frequently selected as a foreign film favourite. The DOGME 95 rules may have been too restrictive to ever last beyond a gimmick, but in Festen, at least, the manifesto was fundamental in delivering a mature, powerful and intimate portrait of the darkness festering behind mansion doors.

  • The Disclosure of the Celebration (9mins) – Thomas Vinterberg discusses the origins of the film
  • The Celebration in Retrospect (30mins) – an extensive cast and crew featurette
  • The Making of the Celebration (24mins) – intriguing behind-the-scenes footage
  • Deleted Scenes

DIRECTOR(S): Thomas Vinterberg | COUNTRY: Denmark | YEAR 1998 | DISTRIBUTOR(S): Umbrella Entertainment | RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 16:9 | REGION: 0 | DISCS: 1

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