william steig drawing

July 26, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Festen (The Celebration)

* This is a particularly rambling one, so get a snack or something*

When I was younger (I’m an ancient 26 now if you must know) I was very anti hand held camera.

I do not like extraneous camera movement. I’m not a fan of the hovering camera. There are rarely any truly static shots anymore and this breaks my heart.

In a spirit of instinctive contradiction I am avoiding all camera movement, which is so much in the fashion that the experts think it indispensable.
– Jean Cocteau

First you must understand that everything you read comes straight from the moist soul of a deeply devoted Visconti fan (he is in my gut you know. Helmut Berger lives inside my stomach in purple eyeshadow, while dark and thick haired girls roam the halls of my intestines). Now that you know this, let’s continue.

The hand held camera can easily disguise mediocrity under the veil of artistry. This is where my irritation begins. You will find that many young filmmakers who employ this style are great admirers of the French New Wave. These directors were of course magnificent, but I suspect it is the seeming ease of the style (natural lighting, jump cuts, hand held, improvised dialogue, lack of plot etc) that attracts so many young directors and provokes poor mimicry. It is an avant-garde style that doesn’t take much work to pull off, or so they falsely believe.

Of course hand held can be a good choice, the best for certain stories, but it can also be employed with little thought only because it is simple and in vogue (like turning up the contrast on photographs of yourself, it can easily hide flaws). The same can be said for a host of other shooting techniques and certain kinds of framing, but it is the ease of hand held that makes it such an attractive choice. The moral of the story is, hand held is a device as important as any other, however, its inherent ease lends itself to abuse in the hands of those wishing to be artistic without reason.

…And then I used my first digital camera (had only worked with 16mm until then), and my ideas changed.

Hand held lends itself most wonderfully to digital filmmaking (the kind available to those lacking the funds to buy a $9,705,564 camera). If I ever teach a course on filmmaking (but I really hope I never will), I shall say this:

“Pardon me dearest students, when using your digital camera (for we have not the funds to express our dreams in film like we did in my youth), perhaps you will consider catering your projects to the technology at your disposal. Lower scale digital looks its best hand held! It is digital and it is wonderful. Embrace its digitalness my children as my wisdom embraces your tender heads. No, it isn’t film, but so so what? It’s not trying to be film. Love the unique possibilities digital offers. Now go forth and create I no longer want to look at you.”

High on my new discovery (I invented digital filmmaking), I turned to Lars Von Trier. Lars is a master of hand held work. He pointed me to Dogme 95 and there I found the Danish film The Celebration (Festen), Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film shot on Hi-8 videotape, and the first Dogme project. Festen cemented my confidence that hand held was meant for digital as I am meant for individual sized cheesecakes from Whole Foods.

Festen tells the story of Helge the patriarch’s 60th birthday celebration at the family owned hotel. Helge’s wife, Else, sons Christian (played by a Hamlet looking Ulrich Thomsen), Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), and daughter Helene (Paprika Steen) arrive at the hotel along with extended family members to join in the celebration. All is not well however, as the party happens to take place shortly after the suicide of their sister Linda, Christian’s twin, in the very same hotel.

I had an extremely emotional reaction to this film, and immediately embarked on a campaign to make all my friends and family watch it. What? You haven’t seen The Celebration, It’s amazing. It’s the most emotionally raw movie I’ve ever seen. Will you watch it if I buy it for you? I’ll buy it for you I swear.

If you have not seen Festen and plan to, you may want to stop reading.

The photography played no small part in provoking such an emotional response. The inelegant hand held camera work gave the film a lightness that in turn allowed it to be extremely dramatic and emotional, never setting foot in melodrama or bullshit country, perfectly capturing the paralyzing anxiety of familial confrontations.

I think about Festen frequently and watch it when I am feeling particularly moody. I need to spend time with my darling Christian.

(I’m watching it right now as I write and I’m getting a bit overexcited. I have the urge to interrupt what I’m saying to compell you to watch it right away. I will cede to this desire: Please watch it tonight. Tell your husband or wife or children or indentured servants to find something else to do. Please watch it!)

Every family has secrets.
Some are more violent than others.
If you are familiar with family turmoil, you will experience The Celebration very deeply.
If you know about shame, and masks, and the people that wear them, you will be moved.

At Helge’s dinner, Christian publicly accuses his father of repeatedly molesting him and his sister while his mother turned a blind eye.

As I knew nothing about the film before watching it, I was as stunned as the party guests by Christian’s announcement.

As Woody Allen said “Tradition is the illusion of permanence.” It makes us feel secure.

We all have an innate urge to maintain a certain normalcy.

After every interruption during dinner, a rapid attempt is made at keeping things pleasant and light.  Everything is OK. There is no serious consideration of Christian’s accusations. Those that disrupt the good illusion and reputation of upper class dignity are troublemakers to be pitied, ignored, or laughed away.

It is much easier to vilify a man that suggests we’ve been duped, than have our realities toppled.

Like Dogme sought to disrupt the tradition of big budget Hollywood filmmaking, Christian disrupts his family’s traditions and that of The Family as an institution itself.

The family celebrates at the hotel they’ve gone to for ages.
There is the tradition of the toastmaster.
The tradition of the lodge.
Helge’s tradition of speaking with the chef and having bitters.
The tradition of the servers.
The traditional three course meal.
The tradition of the birthday song.
The tradition of the birthday dance.

And then there is the tradition of masculinity and manhood. The idea of what it means to be a man as defined by the father.
Michael in particular has put his own family second in failed attempts at satisfying Helge’s notion of responsible adult masculinity. He flails violently at the idea of disappointing his father by wearing brown shoes to dinner. He is only pacified by sex, perhaps because in doing so he is affirming his manhood, something constantly doubted by Helge.

Michael is starved for his father’s approval. He rushes to meet him in the den and is childishly eager at the suggestion of joining the lodge.
When Christian’s accusations of rape are accepted as truth, Michael’s reality falls apart. The admiration he has for Helge becomes hatred.
He has been made a fool in his desire to measure up to a dignified masculinity that turned out to be illusory. His self-loathing at his inability to satisfy his father, and the torment he has put his wife and children through have been for nothing.

When we are first introduced to the two sons we believe that Christian has been the more fortunate and loved, certainly the favorite. Though he has achieved success in his career, it is actually Michael that has been spared the most suffering.
While Michael seems to be able to simply hate his father, Christian cannot. Despite the abuse, his love and pity for Helge remain. It is because he loves him and is confused by his feelings of affection and the duties of a son to love and respect a father that he is so extremely tormented.

Family. Manhood. Sex. Incest. Love. Rape. Homosexuality. Suicide. Tradition. Women. Children. Fathers. Men. Mothers. Brothers. Sisters. Loneliness.

Festen will pick at the scabs of wounds you believed were long healed.

Maybe even those you never knew existed.

I bet you thought I forgot all about the African American character. Well think again, expect a Race in Film post about him next.

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  1. Linked here through Roger Ebert’s Twitter, and I’m so glad! This is one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, and I completely agree that it represents the very best of what hand-held digital filmmaking can be. It’s one of those rare films where I feel like every aspect comes together flawlessly–the medium, the style, the content, the writing, the acting. I think Vinterberg chose exactly the right movie to make within the Dogme 95 framework, too. He’s telling a story that is served so well by that filmmaking approach. It’s just such an effective movie, and it emotionally guts me every time I watch it. Gah, can’t say enough good things, I’m just excited to read that someone else loves it as much as I do, and for similar reasons.

    I’ll have to come back and check out your post on Race in Film. I’m interested! 🙂

  2. it stays with you, this one.

    I’m originally from Denmark and there are layers of Danish culture in it, as well. A sort of Reader’s Digest guide to what it’s like to be Danish. Not that every family has a secret of sexual abuse, but the emphasis on tradition, on moving on past the unpleasant, of keeping it all inside. A friend of mine is convinced that had Helge chosen the yellow speech, Christian would never have revealed what was on the green and he claims it’s the Danish penchant for fairness. I have no idea if he’s right – as a Dane, I am too close to it to see clearly.

    last year, one of the small theater companies in Toronto did Festen as a play and I saw it from the first row. It really brought home to me how the Dogme way of filmmaking is the next best thing to being there, capturing raw emotion and reaction in a way that normally only done with the naked eye. If you get a chance to see it as a play, do

  3. Like the above, I think all the elements of this film serve each other completely.

    Festen is an incredible film, it transcends limiting genres such as ‘arthouse’ and just simply is a masterpiece – and right now, Im plucking up the courage to see it again………..



  1. […] inclusion of an African American character in Festen (see previous post) is a curious thing.  First I should make clear that the character is indeed an American man of […]

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