As his extended family reunite for his 60th birthday, patriarch Helge finds some family secrets brought suddenly out into the open.
This head-banging drama about a bunch of nobs who gather at a stately country pad for a 60th birthday was made under a strict set of rules called Dogme 95, drawn up by a group of four Danish directors including Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier (whose The Idiots is another Dogme film). The "vows of chastity", as they call them, include using only hand-held cameras in available light. Assuming viewers aren't rendered terminally queasy by the cinematography - a gimmick resembling a demented bluebottle's eye-view of events - Festen is a fierce dissection of family life. It kicks off as the guests prepare for dinner, mixing scenes of chunks of chit-chat, frantic kitchen preparations, quickie sex and the discovery of a dead sister's suicide note. The birthday boy is Helge (Moritzen) and the main focus is on his three children, inscrutable Christian (Thomsen), uncouth Michael (Larsen) and emotional Helene (Paprika Steen). Their stories unfold like a whodunit in darkly comical fashion, until Christian drops a bombshell. Vinterberg adopts no obvious moral stance over the racism, brutality and self-delusions of the guests but just seeing them in documentary-like action will be enough to unsettle most viewers as it ricochets between unsavoury outbursts. While there's barely a likeable trait on display and Vinterberg courts controversy with his conclusion, there's no denying that some of the Dogme strictures inject urgency and surprise into what could have been a tediously static affair.
Thomas Vinterberg's tale of family reunion and shallow-buried secrets is a mildly intriguing, well-acted affair, particularly by Ulrich Thomsen, but as with most Dogme films, the hard-to-handle packaging distracts from the content.