The film tells the story of a family gathering to celebrate their father's 60th birthday. At the dinner, the eldest son publicly accuses his father of sexually abusing both him and his twin sister (who has recently killed herself). Vinterberg was inspired to write it with Mogens Rukov, based on a hoax broadcast by a Danish radio station.
It was the first film created under Dogme 95 rules, a movement of young Danish film makers who preferred simple production values and naturalistic performances. The film was selected as the Danish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 71st Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.
Respected family patriarch and businessman Helge (Henning Moritzen) is celebrating his 60th birthday at the family-run hotel. Gathered together amongst many family and friends are his wife Else (Birthe Neumann), his sullen eldest son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), his well-traveled daughter Helene (Paprika Steen), and his boorish younger son Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen). Christian's twin sister, Linda, has recently taken her life at the hotel.
Before the celebration dinner, Helene finds Linda's suicide note, but hides it in a medicine bottle after becoming upset by the contents (which are not revealed to the audience). Michael fights with his wife, whom he had earlier abandoned on the roadside with their three children, and then has sex with her. Michael later is pulled aside by a waitress with whom he had an affair (and had made pregnant) and then beats her when she disparages Helge. Later, during dinner, Christian makes a speech to the family in which he accuses his father Helge of sexually abusing him and his late sister Linda. There is an initial shocked silence, but the party gradually returns to normal, as the guests react by silent denial. In a private conversation in the pantry, a seemingly baffled Helge asks Christian about his motivations for slandering him, and Christian appears to recant his accusation. However, Christian is spurred to further action by hotel chef Kim (Bjarne Henriksen), a childhood friend who knows about the abuse. Christian then stands up and continues his toast by accusing Helge of causing Linda's death. Helge speaks to Christian alone and threateningly offers to announce in a toast Christian's troubled personal history, impotence with women and his perhaps inappropriately close relationship with his late sister, Linda. Christian says nothing in response to the threat. Further exacerbating the tensions of the day, Helene's black boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah) shows up, enraging the racist Michael who later leads most of the partygoers in singing the Danish song "Jeg har set en rigtig negermand" in a racist way to offend him. During a toast, Else makes a series of back-handed compliments towards her children, accusing Christian of having an overactive imagination as a child and asking him to apologize for his earlier accusation. Christian responds by accusing her of interrupting Helge during one of the rapes, yet not interfering with the incident, and calling her a "cunt". Michael and two other guests violently eject Christian from the hotel. When Christian walks back in, they beat Christian and tie him to a tree in the nearby woods.
Christian unties himself and returns to the house. Helene has a headache and asks one of the waitresses (Pia) to go and fetch her pills. Pia finds Linda's suicide note in the medicine bottle and gives it to Christian. Christian gives the suicide note to Helene and leaves a note with the toastmaster. The toastmaster reads aloud the note that urges Helene to read the suicide note to the guests. Helene does so. Linda's note states that she decided to kill herself after feeling overwhelmed by dreams in which her father was molesting her again. In a fit of anger, Helge admits to the abuse in front of all the guests by saying that it was all Christian was good for. He then leaves the dining room with the guests stunned. Christian, who is drunk, faints after walking out of the dining hall and imagines seeing Linda. When he awakes, he learns from Helene that Michael is missing. We learn that the drunken Michael has called Helge outside and then beat his father severely, promising him that he will never see his grandchildren again.
Next morning shows the family (excluding the parents) and guests eating breakfast nonchalantly. Then Helge comes in and speaks to the group admitting his wrongdoing and declaring his love for his children. Michael coolly dismisses their father from the table, stating that he should now leave so that they can have breakfast. Christian reveals that he is going back to Paris, and asks Pia (who has known Christian for years) to accompany him.Ulrich Thomsen as Christian Klingenfeldt-HansenHenning Moritzen as Helge, the fatherThomas Bo Larsen as Michael, the brotherPaprika Steen as Helene, the sisterBirthe Neumann as Else, the motherTrine Dyrholm as PiaHelle Dolleris as MetteTherese Glahn as MichelleKlaus Bondam as Helmut von Sachs, the toastmasterBjarne Henriksen as KimGbatokai Dakinah as GbatokaiLasse Lunderskov as The uncleLars Brygmann as Lars, the receptionistLene Laub Oksen as Linda, the dead sisterLinda Laursen as BirtheJohn Boas as GrandfatherErna Boas as Grandmother
The movie's score is minimal. Its first musical piece is a rendition of Frank Mills's "Music Box Dancer," played over the closing credits.
Festen is best known for being the first Dogme 95 film (its full title in Denmark is Dogme #1 – Festen). Dogme films are governed by a manifesto that insists on specific production and narrative limitations (such as banning any post-production sound editing), in part as a protest against the expensive Hollywood-style film-making. The film was shot on a Sony DCR-PC3 Handycam on standard Mini-DV cassettes.
Some years after making the film, Vinterberg talked about its inspiration: a young man told the story on a radio show of the host Keld Koplev. Vinterberg was told about it by the friend of a psychiatric nurse who claimed to have treated the young man. He listened to the radio programme and asked the scriptwriter Mogens Rukov to write a screenplay on the events, as if it were the young man's own story. It has later been revealed that the story was completely made up, by the patient receiving mental care.
Festen has earned positive reviews. Based on 34 reviews collected by the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 91% of critics gave the film a positive review. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, writing that the film
mixes farce and tragedy so completely that it challenges us to respond at all. ... Vinterberg handles his material so cannily that we are must always look for clues to the intended tone.
Psychologist Richard Gartner, who specializes in counseling men who were sexually abused as children, writes that Festen is a praiseworthy film that accurately depicts the consequences of sexual abuse:
The extent of the father's transgressions is revealed bit by bit in successive revelations. We see that the son has been severely damaged by his boyhood abuse, and has been incapable of intimate relatedness throughout his life. His sister, who has committed suicide, was also deeply damaged. The father denies the incest through most of the movie, and this denial is conveyed and reinforced in the reactions of those who hear the accusations. The partygoers are momentarily shocked by each disclosure, but then continue to celebrate the birthday in a nearly surrealistic manner that serves as a dramatic enactment of the chronic denial often seen in incestuous families.
Festen won the following awards:Amanda Awards, Norway (1998): Best Nordic Feature Film - Thomas VinterbergBelgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics (2000): Grand PrixBodil Awards (1999):Best Actor - Ulrich ThomsenBest Film - Thomas VinterbergCanberra International Film Festival (1999): Audience Award - Thomas VinterbergCannes Film Festival (1998): Jury Prize - Thomas Vinterberg (Tied with La Classe de Neige (1998))European Film Awards (1998): European Discovery of the Year - Thomas Vinterberg (Tied with Vie rêvée des anges, La (1998))Gijón International Film Festival (1998): Best Director - Thomas VinterbergGuldbagge Awards (1999): Best Foreign Film - Thomas VinterbergIndependent Spirit Awards (1999): Best Foreign Film - Thomas VinterbergLos Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1998): Best Foreign Film - Thomas VinterbergLübeck Nordic Film Days (1998):Audience Prize of the "Lübecker Nachrichten" - Thomas VinterbergBaltic Film Prize for a Nordic Feature Film - Thomas VinterbergPrize of the Ecumenical Jury - Thomas VinterbergNew York Film Critics Circle Awards (1998): Best Foreign Language Film - Thomas VinterbergNorwegian International Film Festival (1999): Best Foreign Film of the Year - Thomas VinterbergRobert Awards (1999):Best Actor - Ulrich ThomsenBest Cinematography - Anthony Dod MantleBest Editing - Valdís ÓskarsdóttirBest Film - Thomas VinterbergBest Screenplay - Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens RukovBest Supporting Actor - Thomas Bo LarsenBest Supporting Actress - Birthe NeumannRotterdam International Film Festival (1999): Audience Award - Thomas VinterbergSão Paulo International Film Festival (1998): Honorable Mention - Thomas Vinterberg
Festen has frequently been adapted for the stage; as of 2008 there have been adaptations in more than 15 languages.
The English-language adaptation was written by David Eldridge. It premiered at the Almeida Theatre in 2004 in a production directed by Rufus Norris, before transferring to a successful West End run at the Lyric Theatre, London until April 2005. It commenced a UK tour in February 2006, before transferring to Broadway. Despite its great success in London, it closed after only 49 performances on Broadway, ending on May 20, 2006. It opened in Melbourne, Australia in July 2006 starring Jason Donovan. An Irish production ran in the Gate Theatre, Dublin, from September 2006 to November 2006.
In 2006, a Mexican adaptation opened, starring Mexican actor Diego Luna. In September 2007 a Peruvian production opened starring Paul Vega and Hernan Romero under the direction of Chela de Ferrari.
The Company Theatre mounted the Canadian premiere of Festen in November 2008 at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto. This production was directed by Jason Byrne and starred Eric Peterson, Rosemary Dunsmore, Nicholas Campbell, Philip Riccio, Allan Hawco, Tara Rosling, Caroline Cave, Richard Clarkin, Earl Pastko, Milton Barnes, Gray Powell and Alex Paxton-Beesley.
The Shadwell Dramatic Society's production of FESTEN opened at the ADC Theatre, Cambridge on the 6th March 2012.