Festen (1998)

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Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Stars: Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larson

Awkward turtle

 Festen is a film I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while. I’m a big fan of Lars Von Trier’s films (apart from The Idiots) and I understand that he was part of the whole Dogme 95 wave of filmmaking which saw Danes making films on handheld cameras, using no props and no false lighting. Festen is the first official film to adhere to all these rules, although director Thomas Vinterberg did later admit to covering a window in one scene. Naughty, naughty! You’d think that it would be pretty difficult to make a good film in these conditions (have you seen The Idiots? It’s dreadful!) but Festen somehow pulls it off. It’s not just a good film, it’s a great film.

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I was immediately engaged from the start with the strange camera angles and movements instantly grabbing my attention. In fact, it’s this strange visual style which makes the film so involving and gripping. At times it feels like we’re watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary, or perhaps some found footage from one of the guests. It also helps that the performances feel so real. You completely buy into the whole situation, no matter how darkly farcical it becomes.

Festen features an array of characters who stick in your head after the film has finished. My favourite was probably Michael who had me laughing out loud on several occasions. He’s an utterly over-the-top vile loon! Of course, the more you see of him, the more you start to dislike him and wonder how on earth he ever got married and managed to have two kids in the process! The film really gets going when one of the sons gets up to do a speech. Awkward doesn’t even begin to describe it.

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The less you know about Festen the better! I avoided reviews because I didn’t want any of the various shocks or twists revealed to me. That way you can become one of the guests who look in horror as the family’s dysfunctions are revealed over the course of the night. I think a lot of credit has to go to Thomas’ screenplay. It’s a wonderful script which makes full use of its one-location idea and reveals its drama through character interactions which don’t feel contrived in any way.

I understand that Festen has been turned into a play and I can see why. There’s so much bubbling under the surface and it often explodes beautifully in front of us. I love the way the characters slowly develop as the film goes on, as we get to learn new things about them. It makes the film so much richer and deeper. I also loved the ambiguity of it all. It’s never made clear, until the end, whether what’s being said is true or not.

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Towards the end of the film, Festen reveals itself as something much more than a dark comedy. It becomes a very sad and moving tale about childhood atrocities and losing someone you love. There’s a haunting dream sequence at the end of the film which I found beautifully done and quite emotional. Festen is a great film, full of great performances and excellent filmmaking. Thomas Vinterberg isn’t afraid to shock the audience, but unlike Lars in The Idiots, the controversial material is all relevant to the story and not used merely to make the audience react.

nine-out-of-ten

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