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The 36 Dramatic Situations: Festen (1998) and Discovery of Dishonor

By  · Published on September 1st, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by examining a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t make us confront our abusive Danish father.

Part 24 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One” with Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (aka The Celebration).

The Synopsis

The first film to receive the official seal of approval from Lars von Trier’s short-lived Dogme 95 manifesto, Denmark’s Festen opens with an extended family gathering together at the patriarch’s exquisite hotel to celebrate his 60th birthday. However, the procession of the festivities take a hard right turn when Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), a son of Helge, the patriarch (Henning Mortizen), uses his opportunity to give his father a toast to reveal to the entire family that Helge sexually abused both he and his sister Linda throughout their childhood, a revelation that is especially affecting for the family as Linda has recently committed suicide. Immediately reacting in disbelief to Christian’s claim, Helge and other members of the family shun Christian from the festivities as he incessantly attempts to convince the family that what he’s said is true.

The Situation

“Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One” involves “The Discoverer” and “The Guilty One.” While it is apparent that, through Christian’s task of attempting to reveal his father for what he truly is, Helge is accused of being the guilty one, this does not mean that Christian is the Discoverer, as he functions more as a victim whose experience stands as evidence of his father’s sins.

What makes Festen such a thrilling and engrossing film is that “The Discoverer” is, in fact, the entire family who had no idea – or at least, who have sunken deep into denial – that Helge is The Guilty One, and what makes Festen engaging is not necessarily the tug-of-war over authority and truth between Christian and Helge, but the varying levels of acceptance or rejection that take place amongst various family members as they let this shocking revelation slowly sink in.

Also, as Christian is initially accused of making up the story for some sort of dreamed-up personal attack on his father, Christian can be argued to function, at first, as The Guilty One until the intricacies of the multi-character study that is Festen continue to develop.

The Film

One typically thinks that, with victims of abuse, planned-out acts of dramatic revelation like this rarely exist – such victims are often characterized instead to be so humiliated and haunted by the inciting incident that disclosing the truth to a huge number of people which includes The Guilty One and his or her family and friends would be an impossible option. How the central situation featured in Festen is executed is certainly an unlikely one, and subject matter as delicate as this could have dissolved into a fantastic “only in the movies” melodrama, or something offensively problematic, in the hands of somebody with less ingenuity than first-time director Vinterberg.

But Vinterberg displays such amazing control throughout the film that we are allowed to recognize the extraordinary just as readily as we are able to believe it: as Christian reveals the truth about Helge, his familial audience’s transition from awkward laughter to incredible discomfort to an outburst of outrage operates in such immersive act of unfolding that allows us to experience the details within each suspenseful moment of the shocking revelation. It is in this sense that Vinterberg makes us The Discoverer alongside the family: we share their horror, their disbelief, and their gradual acceptance of a grim history (though, because we have been following Christian around and have no personal investment in Helge, we are initially more prone to believing him than his family is, but the almost real-time experience of watching this situation unfold remains the same).

The captivating effectiveness of Festen’s articulation of this particular dramatic situation is due in no small part to its inventive and incredibly original filmmaking style. The Dogme 95 way of filmmaking may not have lasted very long, but Festen remains a potent sign of how it can be used well. Motivated on a set of strict artistic restraints, Festen has an urgency within its style that makes it feel kinetically in-the-moment and blisteringly real (Festen is in many ways more about the breakdown of strict social mores rather than an exploration of abuse, so it is rather appropriate that such a refreshingly daring and unconventional filmmaking style is used for a story about disrupting the norm). The camera feels like it can suddenly move anywhere and see anything, and while Vinterberg’s dynamic way of shooting may not make Festen seem like a purely “authorless” film in the way von Trier may have intended, the intimacy with which the Dogme style interacts with the story makes it (in a good way) almost too close to comfort. Festen’s situation may be delicate, but in the hands of Vinterberg it becomes rich and engrossing as well.

Bonus Examples: A History of Violence; Road to Perdition; The Godfather, Part II

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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