- Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (The Celebration) by C. Claire Thomson
Writing fifteen years after the auspicious premier of Festen (1998; The Celebration) at Cannes, C. Claire Thomson brings a charmingly personal touch to her study of the inaugural film of the Dogma 95 movement. In her introduction to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, Thomson describes the first time she saw the film, in Edinburgh in 1999, writing that she “felt touched by the film, more than I ever had before or since upon encountering a new movie” (p. 7; emphasis in original). Thomson thus frames her book as deriving from her own affective response to Festen, and her desire to explore a strange paradox at its core: “why Festen—the harbinger of a new generation of feature films to register the material world in the form of digital code—should feel so tangible” (p. 7). To this end, Thomson’s study situates Festen squarely in its context at the head of the digital cinema revolution in the late 1990s, highlighting the film’s touching (some would say old-fashioned) commitment to the “real” even as cinema seemed to have radically severed its indexical link to the pro-filmic world. Thomson’s original and insightful study of one of the most impactful Scandinavian films of the past quarter-century comes at the right time; with the benefit of the accrued historical distance from Festen’s premiere, Thomson can examine the film without being swayed by the sometimes apocalyptic and reactionary critical rhetoric that accompanied the shift from analog to digital film production and distribution. The result is a study of Festen that is historically grounded and theoretically sophisticated, and one that explores stimulating new avenues of analysis. [End Page 403]
One of the strengths of Thomson’s book is that it articulates clear analytical boundaries for itself. Rather than merely reiterating points that have been established elsewhere, Thomson points her readers to other sources for different critical approaches to the film. This is worth mentioning because this kind of a monograph—a short book about a canonical film published in a series on Scandinavian cinema classics—has the immediate feel of a generic introduction published for a broad readership. And although Thompson does provide sufficient background and context for the book to be useful for readers who have no familiarity with the contemporary Danish film landscape, her book makes fresh and original arguments about a film that has too often been analyzed merely in terms of its historical significance. Thomson succeeds in what she sets for her goal in the introduction: “to release the film as a text from the weight of extant interpretations and explanations, to reinvest it with sensuality” (p. 8).
Part 1 of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen serves as an introduction to the film’s cultural and historical significance. Chapter 1 situates the Dogma 95 movement within the Danish film culture from which it sprang. Here, Thomson traces a mostly familiar narrative of how the “Manifesto” functioned both as a crucial agent of renewal in Danish film culture, and as an expression of a broader “hunger for reality” in Danish culture around the end of the millennium (p. 31). Although there is little that is truly new here, Thomson lays the groundwork for her study in a chapter that is densely packed with contextual detail, and that effectively introduces the reader to the “Manifesto” and “The Vow of Chastity” point-by-point.
Chapter 2, “The Auteur and Cinema History,” explores the “Manifesto’s” highly ambivalent stance toward the figure of the director. Thomson shows here that, although the “Manifesto” declared the auteur concept “false,” admonished the director to “refrain from personal taste” (p. 41), and, most famously, forbade the director from being officially credited, the “Manifesto’s” “interest in combating the bourgeois notion of the auteur can only be understood ironically” (p. 50). Indeed, in Lars von Trier’s and Thomas Vinterberg’s signing of the “Manifesto,” the auteurist metaphor of the directorial “signature” is made literal. Any anti-auteurism expressed in the...