Dogme#1 - Festen (1998)
a.k.a Festen, The Celebration

D: Thomas Winterberg (not credited on point of principle)
S: Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen

Founded in Copenhagen in 1995, Dogme 95 is an ideal for a group of self-professed avant-garde filmmakers who insist their supporters take a "vow of chastity" to make films in very particular ways (details may be found on their web site). Among their tenets are a reliance on actual locations, natural sound, and a devotion to making films which ooze truth from every orifice. Decrying the failure of the nouvelle vague and the descent of European art cinema into bourgeois self-absorption, Dogme 95 promise a new dawn for a radical, self-aware, and engaged cinema of the here and now. Festen is their first film.

Directed by co-writer Thomas Winterberg, who, on point of principle does not receive a screen credit for direction (authorship is anathema to Dogme 95: the individual has no meaning, only collective art matters), it is a fairly standard drama of dysfunction charting the events which transpire when a large family gathers to celebrate the 60th Birthday of their patriarch. In the course of the day, secrets emerge which shatter and illusion of harmony and reveal the dark underside to contemporary Danish family life. In the way of so many social satires since the first of these kinds of manifestoes were published in the 1920s, the excesses and secrets of this particular well-to-do gathering act as an illustration of the rottenness of bourgeois society on the whole and the film attempts to do the same for cinema itself. Despite Dogme 95's professed interest in the here and now, this is a story which has been told many times before, and though the language of their manifesto echoes the equally idealistic rhetoric of Dziga Vertov's Council of Three or the surrealists, the film has less force than many of the art house dramas the collective so decries. In the end, it is a case of style over substance, precisely the opposite of what it is supposed to be.

The problem lies in the enterprise itself. There is a certain distant curious interest in watching how Winterberg adapts to the 'vow of chastity'. The film is most valuable as an illustration of craft. The use of confined settings, natural light and sound, and the attempt to create specific effects through camera positioning and editing will prove fascinating to any student of film. The performances are good, the script is reasonable enough (if very predictable), and as an experiment in filmmaking technique, it retains interest. Yet there is something of the luddite in this all-important vow, and it is difficult to see what value the exercise has as anything other than a publicity stunt to draw attention to a film whose other dimensions are less rewarding.

The manifesto speaks of forcing the truth out of character and situation, decrying illusionism and traditional characterisation. Yet this story is utterly traditional in its delineation of character and situation and it is steeped in political and personal rhetoric on a deeper level which only a bourgeois audience armed with the weight of precedent (and the Dogme 95 manifesto) can begin to respond to as a radical statement. The story is the stuff of Buñuel, Bergman, and Pasolini, all of whom embarked on similar journeys through the heart of bourgeois darkness through the medium of family long before this. Festen adds nothing to the way in which the dynamics of a family's relationship with itself can expose hidden truths about them (and us), and if scenes of explicit sex and violence are not manipulation, I don't know what is.

So again we return to the style. Is there some merit in the fact that this attempt to match basic drama to basic technique draws attention to the artificial nature of the medium. Well, no, not really. The technological step backwards comes neither from necessity nor an original point of view. Dogme 95 have money. This is not a low budget cinema emerging from a political counterculture in an underprivileged nation. In terms of the inspiration for the enterprise, it forms part of a continuity of European rebellion against mainstream filmmaking which began in the 1920s, so there's nothing surprising there. Yet Festen is also, surprisingly, still quite a flashy piece of filmmaking. It moves very quickly and features gimmicks such as speeded-up movement, rapid cutting, and a variety of 'gee whiz' camera and lighting effects created with natural means which make it not far from being the kin of the hallucinogenic, illusionistic spectacle that was Natural Born Killers. The technique certainly doesn't allow the story to emerge from the setting and the personalities. It is not a Renoir film. André Bazin, the great champion of the use of the natural environment and simple, non-interfering camerawork to reveal deeper and more genuine truths about the human condition, would have hated it.

The final straw is that despite decrying bourgeois values, Festen , like almost all the avant-garde European cinema which preceded it and which the manifesto condemns, is the product of a bourgeois consciousness. Its response to the questions it raises about contemporary society is simplistic adolescent rebellion. It has nothing more valuable to say about family, incest, or patriarchy than the average soap opera or TV movie. Its solutions to the challenge of finding truth in the midst of hypocrisy are contrivances borne of the craft of screen writing (reversal, narrative foreshadowing, character development), and the lofty rhetoric of Dogme 95 is ultimately proven to be an empty formula upon which to hang insubstantial material. It is conventional, safe, generic, and utterly bourgeois as only a European art-house anti-bourgeois film can be.

As a film in its own right, Festen is not interesting enough to attract attention. There simply is not enough to it. As a statement about contemporary art and contemporary cinema, the Dogme 95 collective deserves polite applause (although there is something of the sense of a big joke about it, a postmodern counter-bluff?). One has to wonder if this manifesto merely another product of postmodernism rather than a clarion call for its end. Is Dogme 95 really a significant moment in the evolution of cinema, or a footnote to the decline of meaning in the face of the culture of late capitalism itself; a last, pathetic gasp before oblivion? You decide. As an illustration of a new radical cinema, it is a pale echo of too many greater voices to make any waves (even those 'ripples' of the nouvelle vague which the manifesto says turned to muck were more inspiring). It lacks the gut-wrenching power of Eisenstein and Vertov, the stately tragic humanism of Renoir, the committed irony of Buñuel or even (gasp) the intellectual rigour of Godard. It is radical only by inference and because the manifesto's signatories say it is. Festen is ultimately not worthwhile at any level other than the most superficial, and recommended only to those with a predisposition to believe in its illusions about itself.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.