This is a movie I’ve been wanting to review for a long time. It reigns supreme among the royalty of independent cinema, not only in its aesthetic and feel, but also in the way it is made, but I’ll get to that later.
Festen (known in English as The Celebration) opens with a group of people making their way to a giant birthday party; they are family members, celebrating the sixtieth birthday of their patriarch. The man in question is Helge, and he has three grown children. He used to have four, but the fourth recently committed suicide for reasons unknown. The three remaining are Helene, a fragile but strong-willed young woman; Michael, a violent, abusive and drunken maniac; and Christian, the main child, who is about to set off a chain reaction of events following an explosive revelation.
After the guests have arrived and settled in at the luxurious mansion where they are staying, it comes time for dinner, and everything is going fine until Christian taps his glass to make a speech. This is the first of various speeches he makes, but they are all equally as shocking. In his speeches, he reveals that his father sexually molested and abused him and his late sister, and that he is indirectly responsible for her suicide.
The film is directed by Thomas Vinterberg, who is the co-creator of Dogme-95, a manifesto of rules which various filmmakers can choose to adhere to while making a movie. They include shooting all footage on location, not using sets or studios, and that all the footage must be shot on handheld camera. Very few filmmakers have successfully managed to create a movie using these criteria and not breaking them, and Dogme-95 has since been forgotten. But its films remain. Festen is one of them. The first one. The best one.
The handheld camerawork and on-location shooting, as well as other aspects of filmmaking which some might consider negative, actually work wonderful in punctuating the reality of the film. Rather than watching a movie, we feel like we’re actually watching real life; not simply because of the acting (which is amazingly good), but because of the way its shot. In fact, for some scenes, cast members had to be holding cameras, just to get the right shooting angle without violating rules of the Dogme-95 manifesto.
The film works excellently both as a family drama and a character study; there are some really poignant moments which capture humanity at its best, and ugliest. While watching the three siblings, Christian, Michael and Helene, I was reminded of the Corleone children in The Godfather; its clear those characters were an inspiration for Vinterberg, and the character of Michael never ceases to remind me of Sonny in The Godfather.
Plot-wise, there are plenty of twists and turns, and even some eerie dreamlike sequences toward the end. The initial revelation of the sexual abuse is where it begins, and is the main subject, but is not where it stays. When Christian initally makes these comments about the abuse, his father and mother try to convince the people that he is joking, or drunk.
In a sequence which I absolutely love, Christian’s mother tells a story about how he had imaginary friends as a child, and how he is simply imagining these stories of abuse. The emotional reaction from the viewer in this scene is amazing; we know Christian was abused, raped by his father, and the mother knows this too, but she continues to go on and on about how he’s making it all up, and then: Christian’s reaction to her is just brilliant. I won’t say what happens, or what he says, but I’ll leave it up to you to watch the film and see for yourself.
As well as sexual abuse, another theme which is dealt with is racism. Helene’s boyfriend is an African American, and a late arrival to the celebration; when he does arrive, the prejudiced and spiteful (and drunk) Michael sneers at him distastefully; it is obvious he doesn’t like him. This small thing explodes into an absolutely gobsmacking act of racism, when, later on in the movie, almost everyone sitting around the incredibly large table, joins each other in a blatantly racist and incredibly offensive song, metaphorically spitting at him with their words and chants.
It is this sort of unnatural behaviour which colours the movie, and gives it its own outrageous depth. Vinterberg is not afraid to offend people, if it gets his point across. Festen is a dramatic, comedic and very important film about the longterm consequences of sexual abuse and tension on a seemingly perfect family, and the effect it can have on those involved. It is one of my personal favourite films ever made, and I highly recommend it to everyone. That includes you!