This review contains spoilers for the movie "Festen"
The Dogme 95 movement was established as a sort of backlash against the over commercialisation of cinema with flashy special effects, unrealistic stories, increasing budgets and decreasing artistic quality. The movement set out a number of rules for film-makers, a challenge to see if you could make a film within these constraints, in an attempt to move the focus back to characters and story. Thomas Vinterburg's "Festen" was the first film released that was expressly a "Dogme 95" film (even credited as such at the beginning). It tells the story of a family gathering for a 60th birthday party. As the guests arrive at the large hotel which the family own we are introduced to several characters who between them will drive the narrative. We have the children Michael, an uncouth, arrogant person who throws his wife and children out of the car on the drive so he can give his brother a lift. His brother Christian is much more polite and mild-mannered. We then meet their sister Helene, an outgoing worldly-wise woman rarely seen without a cigarette or a drink in hand. We are also informed that they had another sister, Christian's twin, who committed suicide.Once the family are settled down to their meal, Christian gets up to make a toast to his father. He tells the guests plainly that both he and his sister were abused by their father. This is the heart of the drama and everything really revolves around the resolution of this single issue.
The script is very well written with numerous characters all playing a part. It is enjoyable to see all the relatives interacting and there is a lot of comedy as well as the obvious tragedy. There are elderly relatives mishearing or misunderstanding what they've been told, a grandfather who keeps getting up to make the same speech. The film also does a great job of maintaining tension. Early on we learn that their deceased sister Linda has killed herself. This mystery lingers while we go on with other things, but it is always there. Later when Christian reveals the truth about his father it is a shocking moment, but then things again seem to carry on, everyone would rather ignore it. But the audience is feeling a deep unease that this will eventually be addressed. One of the founding principles of Dogme was not to include anything out of the ordinary, so no gunfights or extreme violence, instead everything is expressed verbally or through their performances. This makes for a powerful film because there is no cathartic fight or explosions to distract you. You are left with the raw horror of this situation. Family gatherings can be uncomfortable enough as it is, but with the added element of child abuse it is excruciating.
The film has a grainy look with everything shot hand-held on a very basic camera. Personally, I didn't feel as though this added too much, although it didn't detract from the film either. It gives the whole thing the feeling of watching a home video, which does help set the tone, and it draws you into the action. Vinterburg admitted that he had cheated on the Dogme rules by covering a window in one scene, and I don't think it would have affected the film in any way if they'd used a tripod here or there, or more lighting. Overall, a really powerful drama with some great performances.