In 1995, two friends and filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier created the Dogme 95 manifesto and associated ˜vow of chastity’. They felt that movies had become far too much about special effects and technology and so, in an attempt to get away from this, gave themselves a set of rules and restrictions to abide by. By doing so they hoped to put the story, acting and themes they wanted to explore to the forefront and cut out what they felt were unnecessary bells and whistles.
The ˜vow of chastity’ demanded that filming be done entirely on location, with no additional props brought in that cannot be found on site. Only hand held cameras may be used, with no optical work or filters, no special lighting or effects. There may be no music or sound effects added in post-production, as well a number of other rules.
Von Trierwent on to make The Idiots while abiding by these rules, but before that came Festen. Festen was the first movie to be made according to Dogme principles and was written and directed by Dogme co-creator Thomas Vinterberg, although in accordance with the vow of chastity, he did not put his name to the film, and there is no official directorial credit. Festen (which translates as ˜The Celebration’) tells the story of a bourgeois Danish family gathering for the 60th birthday of Hegge, the family patriarch. It’s quickly established that this is a fractious family, with tensions bubbling under. Besides Hegge, the main characters are his three grown up children, Michael, the angry underachiever, Christian, withdrawn and now living in Paris, and Helene, the ˜artistic’ one. There’s also the ghost at the feast in Linda, the fourth child who has died shortly before and whose absence hangs heavily over the event.
Festen’s characters are all quickly drawn, with impressive skill in the tightness of the writing “ their characters revealed through their actions and dialogue which never feels exposition heavy. The celebration has all the hallmarks of a tetchy family reunion and is already going badly when Christian stands up at the dining table and calmly announces to the large extended family present that his father raped both him and his sister when they were children. From then, things just get worse as all the family secrets that have been bottled up for years are let out, all in the course of a marathon dinner.
A poisonous atmosphere permeates Festen as the genteel, respectable facades that the characters present are stripped back to reveal their true selves. Few of the characters are likeable and all are damaged in some way “ the film seems to be a critique of the buttoned up ways of the bourgeoisie and reality lurking below the surface. But despite the lack of anyone to root for, watching everything fall apart is strangely compelling, with moments of pitch black comedy and even occasional flashes of love and affection. The hand held camera style works particularly well in the context “ the material often feels like camcorder footage shot by one of the guests at the celebration.
There have been relatively few films made that have adhered strictly to the Dogme rules, and of these, only a handful have achieved any kind of mainstream success. However, aspects of the style feature regularly in many films. Key players in the Dogme movement such as Lars Von Trier and Harmony Korine have gone on to make major names for themselves in the film world. As for Vinterberg, he had a series of flops after winning the Cannes Grand Jury Prize for Festen “ though positive reviews for his 2010 movie Submarino suggest something of a comeback. But even if it’s a false dawn he’ll always have Festen, the original, and arguably best, Dogme movie.
Full list of rules from the Dogme 95 ˜vow of chastity’:
- Filming 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.
- The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
- The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
- 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).
- Optical work and filters are forbidden.
- The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
- Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).
- Genre movies are not acceptable.
- The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
- The director must not be credited.