Festen and Dogme 95

Photo from http://ecx.images-amazon.com/
Photo from http://ecx.images-amazon.com/

Okay, so normally I would write about whatever Wes Anderson film my sister and I watched over the weekend (this time it was Bottle Rocket). But last Wednesday, in my Film Studies class, we watched a film that, upon completing the assigned analysis, kind of blew my mind. Here’s that.

I had never heard of Festen before last Wednesday, or of the style in which it was filmed, Dogme 95. Which was great, because my understanding of school is that it is meant to teach you things. So I sat and I learned and I sat and I watched. And I was bored. And I was tired. But I needed time.

This happens fairly often with the films we watch in Film Studies. I get excited to watch something new, something I will learn from, and I leave class thinking, “That was super boring,” or “that took forever.” But later, when I’m thinking through my Blackboard response for the week’s film, something clicks, and “that was super boring” becomes “SWEET. JESUS.”

All right, so this one is going to require some set up. Dogme 95 is a movement in filmmaking that stresses the value of story and acting over spectacle and special effects. It was pioneered by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who set up a list of ten rules to adhere to when creating a Dogme 95 film. They are as follows (sourced from Wikipedia for accuracy and stuff):

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

Interesting stuff, yeah? So, Festen, or The Celebration as it is known in English, was the first Dogme 95 film I’d ever seen. There was a lot to take in. It’s always easy to slip into the usual passive mindset of movie-watching. But once the film was in my head, and I was given some direction for how to think about it, I was able to chew through everything it threw at me and find some really cool meaning in it.

Festen follows a rather well-to-do family as they gather to celebrate the 60th birthday of Helge, the patriarch. Events unfold mainly through the eyes of Helge’s three children — Christian, Michael, and Helene. Everyone seems generally happy apart from these three, who seem troubled. As it turns out, they each have good reason to be.

There’s no need for me to spoil the rest of the story, so I won’t. But I wanted to make it clear that the film takes place during a family gathering. When I realized what this film was depicting, and put that together with the way in which it was depicted, I was kind of blown away.

Okay, so think about it. Dogme 95 requires a handheld camera, no post-production effects, no special lighting, etc. So the look these techniques end up creating turns out to be something close to, say, a family camcorder. Which is absolutely PERFECT for this setting and this story! The colors are washed out and bland, the lighting is natural to the surroundings, the audio isn’t perfect, and there are echoes and roars of noise as everyone talks at once. All of these things go a long way to cementing the realism, or maybe truthfulness, of the film. You start to think that this film could have easily been just the events of an actual family gathering shot on a camcorder. And all of the awkwardness and uncomfortable moments (and there are many) are accentuated by these stylistic choices.

I really found it exciting to learn that a group of filmmakers set up guidelines for a style of film, and then told a story that perfectly fit that style of storytelling. So while I may have thought the film was boring in the moment, looking back analytically, it’s an experience I’m glad I got to have.

Hopefully this adequately communicated my nerdy excitement for this weird thing, and maybe you’d like to check out The Celebration for yourself! Or learn more about Dogme 95! It’s interesting stuff.

If you do want to watch the film, find a copy with subtitles. Dubbing would ruin the whole thing.

— Mike Egan, Film Blogger

2 thoughts on “Festen and Dogme 95

  1. Editor November 20, 2014 / 12:17 am

    Well, Mike, I’m certainly happy that your “that was super boring” often becomes a “sweet jesus” 🙂 otherwise I’d be feeling pretty inadequate as a film teacher.

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