Festen (Celebration) Thomas Vinterberg (Den; 1998) Ulrich Thomsen, Paprika Stein, Thomas Larsen
viewed on MUBI 7th Jan 2021
‘Festen’ was the first feature film produced after the Dogma 95 declaration which was written by Vinterberg and Von Trier. Dogma 95 was a film makers manifesto, pledging commitment by the signatories to a code of film making practice (‘The vows of chastity’, so called). Like most such artistic manifestos it was a manifestation of silliness (Frank Capra once said: ‘There are no rules in film making only sins and the cardinal sin is dullness) but of course Vinterberg and Von Trier knew that the sillier their Manifesto, the more seriously it would be taken by film critics and thus fulfil its purpose: assure them lots of publicity.
Taken on its own terms Vinterberg’s ‘Festen’ delivers a film that in structure content and style, takes its cue from the core traditions of European film making. ‘Festen’ as a product of Dogma simply exemplifies continuity of film structure and form as exemplified by directors such as Renoir, Vigo, Bresson, and of course Luis Bunuel. Bunuel never bothered with manifestos, but many of his films fall within the parameters and technical imperatives of filmmaking set out in Dogma 95. In respect to content it is Bunuel’s perspective as a film maker that Vinterberg also animates and re-visions. Two of Bunuel’s outstanding films, the Exterminating Angel and Viridiana, involve themes central to Festen: Epater le bourgeoisie: to make movies that are transgressive, blasphemous and that expose the hypocrisy of the middle classes and their rituals of eternity.
Bunuel’s aimed his satiric barbs mainly at the Catholic Church; Vinterberg points his camera at ‘the family’ which by the twentieth century, with the invention of man the consumer, has replaced religion as the West’s most sacred institution. It is no longer possible to offend by blaspheming God, it is the family has become the quasi religious symbol of the times. The family is the subject of Vinterberg’s movie. His setting is the 60th Birthday celebrations of a paterfamilias, the patriarch Helge. The invited guests are his three surviving children, Christian Michael Helene and a host of other relatives, all summoned in effect to render their homage. Missing from the celebration is Christian’s twin Linda, who has committed suicide earlier in the year. ‘Festen’ is to the ritualised family gathering what the Black Mass is to the Holy Eucharist. It is a desecration of a sacred ritual that profanely mimics the very form that it inverts. The host at this communion is raised up not to be blessed but to be pissed on, spat at, reviled.
‘Festen’ is a comedy of manners that ridicules the complacency and inertia of the middle classes. When Christian exposes the gross sexual abuse perpetrated by his father on himself and Linda, the gathered family prefer to continue eating their celebratory dinner as if nothing had happened. They act as if they have heard nothing; at all costs embarrassment is to be avoided and everything should just continue exactly as before. All would be well if the inertia of the event was allowed to take its due and predictable course. The scandal would simply go away if everyone surrendered to the soothing rhythms of the meal: the toasts, the soup course, the main course, the dessert, the wines the brandy and cigars in the drawing room. Everyone could, sort of, pretend nothing had happened.
As course follows course at ‘Festen’s’ birthday gathering, an atmosphere is engendered that is similar to the situation in ‘The Exterminating Angel’. Bunuel uses ‘The Exterminating Angel’ to depict the emptiness of the mannered classes as the guests at a smart cocktail party find themselves unable to leave. Each attempt to leave further enmeshes them in the folds of the event. The lack of awareness of what is happening, the desire to continue as if nothing were happening has parallels with elements of the ‘Festen’ script. Unlike Bunuel’s movie, Vinterberg’s scripting employs a series of intensifications, as the provocateur Christian, refusing to be silenced returns repeatedly to his allegations, escalating the charges levelled against Helge which are finally vindicated by Linda’s retrieved suicide note.
As in Bunuel’s two films, much of the humour in Vinterberg’s script is grounded in the structured opposition between the escalating violence of Christian’s accusations of sexual abuse, and the imperturbable aspect of the formal 60th birthday celebrations which continue like clockwork. Finally reaching to the point where Helge, after admitting to his crimes simply vacates the table as if leaving a boardroom meeting after being voted out as chairman. The family has become a corporate body.
‘Festen’ is superbly served by its actors as a set piece requiring both collective company discipline and strong idiosyncratic characterisation. But it is the stylistic imprint of the camera work, reinforced by the edit, that defines the film. The hand held camera, as per the ‘Dogma’ ‘Rules of Chastity’, works to energise the setting creating a vibrancy of relations between the main characters and the large numbers of extras filling out the screen as Helge’s friends and relations. The edit complements the camera movement with the cutting jagged and on the move. The end result is to make ‘Festen’ a stylistic statement of involvement that works on the audience both subjectively and objectively. The camera work creates an agitated framing analogous to the subjective experience of these sort of events: interactions that are superficial, unfinished , interrupted, half understood. Objectively the camera work and edit create a mood of edginess, inter-shot tension, insecurity, that sets up both the nature and manner of Christian’s interventions and underscores the brittle nature inherent in the pretensions of family ideology.
Vinterberg works two diversions into his script. Parallel to the events taking place at the festive table the scenario tracks the events under the stairs in the kitchen where the multicourse feast is being prepared. The representation of this other world, the servants and their complex relations with their masters, works both as a muted reminder of other social realities necessary to keep the façade in order. It also functions as a distraction, a de-intensifer that takes the heat out of the main action. I thought at one stage that the ‘kitchen’ and the relations within it might have a key role in the play out of events in the dining room. This didn’t materialise but nevertheless the kitchen provided another perspective on the family upstairs.
The second diversion was the arrival of Gbatokai, Helene’s black boyfriend. An arrival that immediately cues a racist reaction from Michael, a reaction that is taken up and repeated by the whole party when the boyfriend joins the table. My feeling is that there is not room in the ‘Festen’ script to shape a response to this racism. The whole film is directed towards the outcome of ‘exposure’ of ‘revelation of truth’. All the energy of the film is targeted towards those moments where we see this family for the ‘lie’ that it is. The addition of the black boyfriend, sub theme – motif, simply reveals something of which the audience are already aware: these people are vile bodies, unpleasant destructive human beings. The consequence of trying to overload ‘Festen’ with another social concern is that the occurrence of a casual socially primed racism is relegated to a mere script appendage, a secondary concern which few people who see the film will probably remember. It looks like this strand of the script has been included without being thought through. The problem is that as victim of the racist atmosphere Gbatokai is simply left to play second fiddle to the main concern of the film. Whereas the forces of righteousness in relation to the abusive father are finally justified and vindicated, the racist abuse is simply something that Gbatokai has to suffer. He has a few resources to confront the horror that assaults him. In the maelstrom of the melodramatic finale, he’s consigned to being wallpaper. My feeling is that Vinterberg should have seen that overloading his script with a somewhat gratuitously introduced secondary theme was an act of bad faith in his key material. Viewed some twenty years after Festen’s original release, the role of the black boyfriend and its cursory treatment in the scenario castes a shadow over the production.
As Gbatokai was writen into Festen’ he should have been acorded action. Had Lars von Trier made this movie, at the moment of revelatory truth the reading of Linda’s letter, Gbatokai would have picked up the cheese knife, climbed up on the table and smashing through the crockery and glass strode across to Helge and buried the knife in his belly.