Written by Wan Tyszkiewicz
Let me start by saying – this film is absolutely outrageous. If you need a film this Christmas that ensures the family pack up early and leave, this is your film. Warning: you may never see your relatives again.
‘Festen’ is another film which I rank in my top 5 films of all time; I love the excruciating content, but also the way the film was part of a significant moment in time when film as a cultural product was in a state of flux and new film movements came into being that challenged the status quo. I can’t just watch a film – I’m always thinking about how the film represents a critical moment in history that might define culture, a generation, a class or any other relevant factor determined in that moment. ‘Festen’ sums up the dichotomy between mainstream and art that preoccupied the 1990s, as mainstream cinema gave way to independent filmmaking in the wake of an international money crisis and disenchantment with blockbuster cinema.
Director, Thomas Vinterberg was part of a short-lived film movement called ‘Dogme 95’. This was the first film that the movement produced – hung up on naturalistic performances and simple production methods and techniques. Often employing actors picked at random with no previous experience, this was a film movement that eschewed the pyrotechnics and colossal budgets that dominated international film production of the 1990s. Shot on Sony DCR-PC3 Handycam – on standard Mini-DV cassettes, and with hardly any post production techniques – ‘Festen’ tells the story almost in a documentary style of patriarch Helge’s 60th birthday celebration in a remote castle attended (under duress) by all the family.
From the very beginning the fractures in the family are evident and the strain that many members are feeling is clearly articulated in disjointed segues, unedited dialogue and sound that has no post-production effects. Power, money and pathos occupy every single frame of this film in one form or another. We find out fairly promptly that protagonist Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) has issues with his father since his twin sister’s suicide. During the big birthday celebrations, family truths are revealed that expose incest, violence and deep-hidden family secrets and lies.
This film was so successful on an international podium that it made its way to theatre relatively quickly. I’ve never seen the theatrical production, but I love being in the room when people who have never seen ‘Festen’ or heard anything about it, view it for the first time. There is always a moment where the audience cannot believe what they have just heard.
Ulrich Thomsen has, over the last twenty years, gone on to incredible success in Hollywood and European film. He is one of the stars of the hit HBO series ‘Banshee’; If you liked ‘Breaking Bad’ then you’ll probably find ‘Banshee’ (at the very least) interesting if not a whole lot better. Produced by the team behind ‘True Blood’, this TV series is kick-ass bad with searing hot sex and convincing fight scenes from unlikely female protagonist Ivana Milicevic. Thomsen plays an Amish son gone bad, who is running a criminal operation. Always slightly sinister and unreadable, Thomsen exudes the same qualities in ‘Festen’ where murder would be a relief, and probably not worst crime committed on the night.
Just like most other foreign language, subtitled films, please don’t watch ‘Festen’ when you’re tired or hungry or in the middle of a nuclear fallout with your partner. Tuck the kids up in bed, put the dog out, feed the cat then turn up the fire and have a stiff drink ready. You’re going to need it..
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Ulrich Thomsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen, Henning Moritzen, Trine Dyrholm