First things first: this is the best movie I've seen this year, and I've seen quite a few. Next order of business: if you are at all squeamish about subtitles, dysfunctional families, or psychological (or physical) violence in the movies, stay away. You might see this picture described as being about a family reunion or birthday celebration. Do not go expecting wholesome family fun!
Now a word about technique. The movie was shot on video, not film, and the camera movements are, shall we say, liberated. It often swoops about, flying around the action; sometimes does quick pans, like someone watching both sides of a conversation; and occasionally stands still, observing quietly. It virtually becomes another character in the film. I can almost guarantee you've never seen anything like the camera work in this picture.
This, along with the quasi-verite style and apparently exclusive use of available light, enhances the believability of the story, and the end result is that there's not a false moment in the picture. I don't even want to get started on the greatness of these performances, because I try to limit the length of my little reviews. It's simply a monumental acting and directing job.
Finally, to the story. I can't tell you much without spoiling it for you. I will say that you've never, ever seen family trauma treated in such an honest and unsentimental, yet tremendously powerful fashion. The ebb and flow of confrontation, retreat, and confrontation renewed, are so compelling, so universally human, yet the treatment given is so fresh and vital....well, I just can't say enough, words fail me. I'm reexperiencing the exhilaration of seeing it as I write this.
I'm not often given to such hyperbole, but this picture had better win a ton of awards, if there's any justice in the movie business - but what am I saying?
It's nearly two and a half years later now, and I've finally gotten around to watching this again. It took forever to be released on tape, that was one problem. Finding the will to revisit a picture to which I reacted so strongly was difficult. What if my initial reaction had been a fluke, some confluence of factors that would never be repeated? I am glad to say that such is not the case. Dogme #1, as it's also known, being the first film made under the auspices of the Dogme 95 manifesto, is confirmed on second viewing as one of the truly great movies of this or any other time.
What seems most notable, at first blush, is how funny it still is. This material ought not to be funny, not one frame of it, yet somehow there are moments....only moments, mind you, not the whole picture, and it's very dark, of course. This is one of the greatest achievements in the film, that they have this humor in the midst of all this emotional chaos and still maintain a consistently believeable tone. The second thing that strikes me this time around is how there are layers of meaning, nuances, shadings that I missed the first time. In fact there are whole scenes that I had forgotten, or didn't understand well. What stuck in my mind in between viewings was the often dazzling camera work, and the emotional impact, the totality of the movie's effect. This time around I found I could concentrate better, scrutinize, see more, not to say that I felt less.
Thomas Vinterberg, Festen's "director" (there are no directors in Dogme 95), is set to begin shooting a picture with Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix next month. That he's not making (nor has he made) another Dogme picture is a bit disappointing, but it should be interesting to see what the guy does with the standard Hollywood machinery. Or will he decline to follow convention even while employing two Hot Items like Danes and Phoenix? It's this sort of mystery that makes moviegoing fun, don't you think?