Family bred for contempt

Dysfunctional families and child abuse have obsessed film-makers this past couple of years and they provided the subject matter for the movies that shared the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1998, Claude Miller’s Class Trip and Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (Celebration). These are, however, markedly different works. Miller’s picture is an elegant thriller, Vinterberg’s a deliberately inelegant example of the “country-house party” genre.

This genre was probably created by Chekhov and involves friends and relatives assembling for some sort of celebration and turning instead to recrimination and blood-letting. It must be set in the countryside because the characters have to be cut off from the everyday world, and the house and gardens need to be large so that private dialogues can proceed uninterrupted. The paradigmatic examples both appeared in 1939 – TS Eliot’s The Family Reunion and Jean Renoir’s La Regle du jeu. Recent instances include The Big Chill, Milou en mai and Peter’s Friends, and Festen sticks rigidly to the rules of the game.

The setting is rural Denmark on a warm summer’s day. The extended family of the overbearing patriarchal Helge Klingenfelt (Henning Moritzen) gather to celebrate his 60th birthday at his exclusive hotel, a grand mansion standing in extensive grounds. A sense of unease is created from the outset when Helge’s feckless younger son Michael unceremoniously tips his wife and kids out of the car half a mile from the house in order to give a lift to his elder brother Christian, a successful restaurateur in France.

Meanwhile, their chain-smoking sister Helene is bribing a taxi driver into reckless speeding to get her to the party on time. It transpires that Michael is gatecrashing the great occasion; he’s been banned for not attending the funeral of Christian’s twin-sister Linda, who committed suicide at the hotel a few months earlier.

The troubles really get under way when a blandly pompous German industrialist acting as toastmaster calls on Christian to deliver the first toast. Instead of the expected platitudes, he denounces his father as an incestuous monster who routinely buggered him and raped his twin sister, thus driving her to suicide. Moreover, he accuses his genteel, poised mother of turning a blind eye to the flagrant abuse. After this skeleton has been brought out of the cupboard it proceeds to dance for the rest of the night, encouraged by Christian, but is treated as an embarrassing joke by most of the other guests.

This discreetly charming, thoroughly disgusting collection of haut-bourgeois citizens are exposed not merely as hypocritical but deeply xenophobic when the drunken, increasingly violent Michael leads them in a racist song as a way of insulting his sister Helene’s African-American boyfriend. Just in case anyone might try to leave, Kim, the principal chef and Christian’s boyhood friend, gets the staff to hide the visitors’ car keys. “It’s quite a job being toastmaster here tonight,” says the bland German with an air of English understatement.

Festen is amusing, well-acted, heartless and superficial. We get little idea of the children’s upbringing, and even the supposedly sympathetic characters – Christian, his sister, the cooks and waitresses – are none too interesting. Vinterberg has spoken of his model for the relationship between patriarch and sons being The Godfather, but Coppola’s film is infinitely richer in dramatic and visual texture.

The grainy, juddering Festen in fact looks terrible. Along with Lars Von Trier and two other Danish directors, Vinterberg formed Dogme 95, a group dedicated to getting away from false production values by signing a “vow of chastity” that commits them to eschew artificial lighting, cutting within a sequence, post-sync sound, make-up, incidental music, camera tripods and props other than those found at the locations and studio sets.

This is not so much reinventing the wheel as throwing the wheels away and ostentatiously dragging the cart along the dusty streets.

Keep the powerful accountable

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Philip French
Guest Author

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