Something Foul in Denmark

By Charles Jason Lee

festen-thomas-vinterberg.jpg Festen, 1998

Filmmaking that attempts to avoid artifice actively reveals itself as a work of art and what makes Festen (Thomas Vinterberg-uncredited, 1998), fascinating is the cinematography that follows the Dogme95 Manifesto. Number six of the Dogme95’s rules, known as ‘the vow of chastity’, is that the film must not contain superficial action such as murder. ‘The vow of chastity’, with the sexual connotation, suggests that Dogme95 films do not abuse the audience. Rule seven is also relevant, with temporal alienation forbidden, the film having to take place in the here and now. The final part of the Dogme95 Manifesto, after the 10 vows, is the supreme goal: ‘to force the truth out of my characters and settings’. With child sexual abuse frequently constructed culturally as the supreme secret, it is therefore conceived as the supreme truth. We can see, therefore, that a film that purports to ‘force the truth out of characters’ must tackle this subject.

The Danish film Festen concerns a family coming together, and falling apart, to celebrate the sixtieth birthday party of an apparent child abuser, with traces of abuse now manifesting in the lives of his children. One study has it that in 49 per cent of child sexual abuse cases the abuser is known inside the family, others placing it as high as 95 per cent. Denmark is particularly significant in relation to attitudes towards paedophilia. As Festen shockingly makes clear, Denmark appears in many ways to ignore child sexual abuse as a phenomenon. According to recent reports, it has a legal web-based organisation promoting paedophilia containing 30,000 members, the average punishment for child sexual abuse being the equivalent of a £50 fine.

In front of guests at a celebratory dinner the eldest son, the successful Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), accuses his father Helge Klingenfeldt (Hunnz Moritzen) of abusing him and their dead sister Linda. The mother Elsa (Birthe Neumann) asks him to apologise but Christian then announces to the guests that his mother witnessed the abuse and condoned it, continuing the myth so common in culture of the complicit mother. The daughter has found her dead sister’s suicide note that confirms Christian’s story. With the chambermaids trying to seduce the two sons there is the notion that in such a wealthy culture illicit sex is the persistent pursuit of the bored bourgeoisie and that the accusations of child sexual abuse are entirely believable. The premise that such a secret can be shut away for almost 60 years and finally be exposed after the death of a sibling is explosive. Although the film’s financiers questioned the subject matter, what else could be more dramatically startling than having an elderly gentleman, prepared with his guests and part of his cinematic audience (those who have not read the reviews) for eulogies, to then be denounced as the paramount monster, a child molester no less, responsible for his daughter’s suicide.

festen-thomas-vinterberg-2.jpgFesten, 1998

Vinterberg has taken his ideas from fellow dogme-tist Lars van Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and emphasises the Hamlet aspect of the script. The Celebration deals with child abuse, but without slipping into the self-important solemnity that characterises so many films which touch on taboo subjects’ and the film ‘is also an Oedipal study with a central character (Christian) who shows both the melancholy and mordant wit of a latterday Hamlet…a ghost story too- the family members are always able to sense the presence of the dead sister. And it is carnivalesque comedy in which the guests at the feast drink themselves out of countenance. Others critics have also referred to Bergman, as well as Shakespeare and Strindberg, in discussing the film. The Bergman influence is epitomised in the casting of Hunning Moritzen as the patriarch Helge, who acted in Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972). Moritzen felt that he could play the part as if he was on stage because he did not have to hit a mark or follow the camera as the camera followed him, being the ‘anthropological eye’. This equating of the camera with the eye is nothing unusual, part of the primary identification of the audience being with this viewpoint but the handheld camera work here is extreme, with only one shot out of seven hundred, according to Vinterberg, not being hand held.

The use of the term ‘anthropological’ suggests the human element entering the film’s artifice, where every fissure and rupture is heightened, challenging classic film narrative’s attempt at fluidity and continuity. What we have is a jarring that mirrors the emotions of the protagonists, and the relentless swinging of emotions involved in such revelations that bring people to the brink of complete fragmentation and madness. This, ironically, stresses the filmic and the anthropological. What I am suggesting is that there is not necessarily a divergence. Certainly the importance of performance, the mise-en-scène rather than the montage, is usually more critical to realist than expressionist film narration, but the heightened significance given to each moment, through the use of handheld video, breaks down the usual divide between realism and expressionism. As the film was then enlarged from video to 35-millimetre format the grainy aspect accentuates this fragmentation. The moments when the camera is out of focus, swinging from one subject to another, seemingly without coherency, gives the film its intensity and surrealism, adding to the power of the revelations of child sexual abuse. The camera movements here create the cinema, and this is not disguised, whilst simultaneously there is the explicit notion that the spectator is offered reality in its most stark, unexpurgated form.

As with the suicide of the daughter, the actual child sexual abuse does not need to be displayed. Vinterberg chooses to distance himself from the hub of the film, stating ‘the subject of child abuse was not, for me, the main subject of the film’. But without such a shocking revelation, with the background story setting the charged context, there would be no film. According to the director the father is likeable because there are ‘a lot of very nice and likable child abusers’. This is a significant point. According to Vinterberg one in 10 children in Denmark have been sexually abused. This figure is not higher than elsewhere, a child sexual abuse charity in the UK actually called ‘One in Four’, but the fact that they have been able to abuse children suggests they are held in high esteem in the general population and, as with this situation, people turn a blind eye. This is where the casting of Moritzen is so crucial to the film. Moritzen is an institution in Denmark; out of his forty films he plays the ‘good guy’ in all but one. Can he really be a paedophile?

festen-thomas-vinterberg-3.jpgFesten, 1998

The Dogme95 doctrine is about moving away from movie making which is too easy, making filmmakers think harder about what they are actually doing and how they are going to achieve the desired result without resorting to supposedly synthetic or false means. This then offers the film spectator a completely different film experience for there is restless power where the limitations of the format are the source of inspiration. By drawing attention to the camera work, there is the belief that the film spectator is not then being duped. The major aspect of the purity of the chastity rule is when it comes to the soundtrack, in this case editor Valdís Ockarsdóthir not being allowed to manipulate the sound. Within the Dogme95 vow of chastity is the concept that cinema is reality or truth, and the questionable notion that there can be purity. We have the questionable idea that pain is authenticity and purity, with the characters screeching their truth.

The notion of chastity in the Dogme philosophy is significant in this context of child sexual abuse, as if the camera can be pure and not abuse both the subject and the spectator by tainting them with a certain ideology. Part of the Dogme philosophy is that the film just exists, that it is not artifice, with the director not supposed to be credited or even talk about the film. Vinterberg, however, has spoken in detail about the film, claiming it addresses the problem of fascism in Europe and the anxiety of coping with anything different. Danish society is often described as ‘family’ and Denmark is allegedly a ‘classless society’, but here we see the family is split by class conflict. The rule of truth within the Dogme95 Manifesto is an anti-bourgeois rule and as this attacks the individual film and the auteur, likewise Festen removes Helge from his autocratic control of the family with the new order a collective. The fact that fascism may be on the increase in Europe and that Denmark is a small country that fears the ‘other’ can be extrapolated from the film but the microcosm of the grand house confronts class more than anything else, and as we most child sexual abuse narratives once again we are in the realm of the Gothic.

festen-thomas-vinterberg-4.jpgFesten, 1998

For the dogme-tist Jasper Jargil, the illusion of reality is easier in Dogme films. There is the thought that ‘you were preparing for something real- which just happened to be recorded on a film camera…reality must arise on the spot’. The suggestion is that what is made is instantaneous, so the film becomes close to documentary. Despite this claim from ‘neo-realism to cinéma vérité [emphasis in original], film history has reliably proved authenticity is a chimerical goal’. Festen has been rightly criticised for being faddish, with its ‘discombobulating shock cuts’, ‘ditch-water house style’, ‘perpetual celluloid haze’, and ‘juggled about by the off-kilter, fun-house framing’. But this intimates the film is merely annoying, drawing attention to the style rather than content, which is far from Jargil’s ‘reality’. The effect of this is what is so staggering, giving the film spectator the feeling of being reeling drunk like the characters, stunned by the child sexual abuse revelations, revealing the manner in which ‘the mask of bourgeois complacency crumbles under the pressure of truth’. At the heart of bourgeois concealment is child sexual abuse, privacy being everything in such an environment. Rage and death are shown to be the results of child sexual abuse, with the public outing of this apparently so private of unforgivable sins tearing at the fabric of this segment of society, its reality the core of its existence.

Charles Jason Lee has taught film and screenwriting at the University of Essex, the University of Central Lancashire, and St Martin's College Lancaster. He is the author of the double volume The Metaphysics of Mass Art (Mellen: New York, 1999) and Pervasive Perversion- Child Sexual Abuse in Media/Culture (Free Association Books: London, 2005).