Wednesday, April 07, 2010
"Summertime – and the living is easy"…Rich family patriarch Helge Klingelfeldt is particularly anxious that his three grown children Christian, Michael and Helene, support his party 's festive mood by making a display of happy unity of the clan. Even downstairs staff is expected to somehow join in the general ambiance.
Night falls, and the master of ceremonies introduces himself and announces that dinner is served. Helge is met by spontaneous outbursts of applause and song. While everyone 's being seated, the kitchen staff add their finishing touches to the evening's festive meal. Fish steam, venison broil. The banquet begins. When Christian eventually clears his throat and calls for silence only he knows what is to come. A speech to shock, a speech to shatter. The most heart-breaking night in living memory is about to descend on the unsuspecting Klingenfeldts. However, irrespective of skeletons being mercilessly ripped out of the family closet, stiff upper lips prevail and in a highly macabre way the party keeps going on.
Festen is not only the first but arguably the best from the Dogme-films. It's a bit difficult to say much about the acting - not understanding Danish is a bit of a barrier- let alone Danish mores. Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) is played as the still centre - we find out about him from what others say- yet he holds our attention throughout. Thomas Bo Larsen as Michael the obnoxious younger brother puts in a full-blooded manic performance and Paprika Steen as their sister Helena gave her role plenty of depth. The father (Henning Moritzen) was a bit two-dimensional - not enough charm to offset his basic nastiness. Among the minor players, I particularly liked Lars Brygman as Lars, the reception clerk, who never loses his (somewhat stunned) composure even as he is lying fully clothed in a bathtub at the behest of Helena looking for ghosts in the ceiling. I also liked Helmuth (Klaus Bondam), the Danish idea of the comic German toastmaster, who after some particularly shocking revelations at the dinner table manages to suggest dessert, coffee and dancing in the lounge - and the stunned guests meekly comply.
The film's shaky, grainy, hand-held camera work and natural lighting (intrinsic to the Dogma movement) lends the film the intimate feeling of a "home movie" though the camera work is anything but amateurish. The camera intrusively views the action from a variety of angles both distant (high angle shots from the ceiling) and intimate (among those at the dinner table). The overall effect of this vérité style is an immediacy and rawness that magnifies the film's amalgam of emotions. As a result, the characters and their dilemmas become uncomfortably real and affecting. However, it is not solely the film's aesthetic that engenders a strong emotional reaction, it is also the intelligent script populated with well drawn characters and turbulent themes.
Festen was the first film which was made adhering to the rules of the Dogme 95 manifesto or rather the Dogme movement founded by the director Thomas Vintenberg, along with Lars Von Trier. Dogme is danish for dogma. It was basically meant as a fillip to spark off an interest in unknown filmmakers by suggesting that one can make a recognized film without being dependent on commissions or huge Hollywood budgets, depending on European government subsidies and television stations instead. The movement has been criticized for being a disguised attempt to gain media attention. Dogme was initiated to cause a stir and to make filmmakers and audiences re-think the art, effect and essence of film-making.
The audience may also be more engaged as they do not have overproduction to alienate them from the narrative, themes, and mood. To this end, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg produced ten rules to which any Dogme film must conform. These rules, referred to as the "Vow of Chastity," are as follows:
1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).
4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
10. The director must not be credited.
Vintenberg and Von Trier have shown what it takes to attain a monk-like asceticism when it comes to film-making. The result is for all to see. Festen, a.k.a Celebration can be watched for free at theauteurs.com.