Shot Composition in Festen

The evolution of camera language in the cinema is constantly at work.  Either the camera itself is changing or the style and idea of frame is changing.  FESTEN is a unique film since it revolutionizes both aspects of camera work.  It is well known that it is the first major Dogme film, but one has to look beyond those specifications to see the film’s other significances.

The use of camera movement around moving characters [consider the first sequence in which Michael ejects Christian from the house] in Vinterberg’s hands creates a dynamic tension as the camera pulls in and out from the action.  In the 1960s, this was a common place in independent productions; DePalma used the technique in the infamous “Be Black Baby” sequence of HI, MOM!  The difference in DePalma’s film [and many other independent U.S. productions] is that his “character’s action “ is meant to feel documentarian when shot this way.  While Vinterberg is using the same kinetic camera work in his scene to build the suspension of belief.  As he pulls into Michael’s screaming face, then spins to the beating of Christian some two yards away, Michael’s character is given power.  Michael is the largest form in the frame, after the spin, the camera looks down on the action while his commands are still audible.  Afterwards, Vinterberg does the reverse, Christian’s wounded face fills the frame then the camera spins and occupying a third of the frame each, Michael and his cronies turn and walk away.  This camera action does not contradict the distribution of power in its characters, but reinforces it in the telling of both sides.  However, the continuity of power would be disrupted if the departure of Michael and his cronies had not been shot from such a low angle.

The same distribution of power [a recurring theme in the film] presents itself in the kitchen scenes.  Often the camera follows the staff through the kitchen while doing their chores with the ever-present sound of the head chief shouting commands.  The payoff here is that, while following the backs of the staff, the camera will, upon reaching the head chief, pull away and down.  This presents the head chief with a sort of grand entrance every time with only his dialogue to foreshadow his arrival.  It is the motion of the camera in reaction to him that gives his character power.  The combination of classic low angles with kinetic hand held camera work presents the audience with the opportunity to invest in the film as a documentary but be manipulated with the camera’s illusions.  [This concept may have been the intention of DePalma, but he only employed this technique in one sequence so we may assume the comparison ends in the first paragraph].

In the hotel room where Christian stays, there are several shots of just his character reclining in a chair.  These shots are presented in a pseudo montage early in the film, but for the sake of this analysis the relation to the shots in the montage will be overlooked.  Rather, it is the set up of the shot that poses some important ideas.  Christian is isolated to the right of the frame with legs sloping down into the left of the frame.  Vinterberg has positioned Christian so that he is alone in the shot, but his figure appears in and connects every third of the frame.  The lighting is dim and the camera is positioned either on the floor or just above.  The audience is confronted with a character completely isolated and, in context to with the second half of the film, confronting himself.  Rarely is an audience engaged with a character with such minimal action.  Grant it that the shot recurs between other shots [all very kinetic and motion oriented] in a montage, but nonetheless, Christian is given to the audience to focus on as the single pivotal arc in the film’s story.

Vinterberg uses his distribution of power method in the film later without the “swoosh” of the camera spin or the obvious shaking of a hand held operation.  As Christian confronts his father, the shot will cut from a close-up of Christian to a wide-shot of his father’s table.  Here, the larger than life figure of Christian is given power over the many “smaller” characters seated with his father.  The technique also adds to the dramatic effect of Christian’s revelation, that his father and all who turned a blind eye now literally shrink and lose their grip over the situation.  This motif is carried out in the removal of Christian as well, since Vinterberg leaves the father’s table intact.  The men who remove Christian come from side tables either in the shot of the father or in quick cut aways.  Christian’s removal begins in his aforementioned close-up and he is literally pulled from frame so that a jarring cut is necessary and we enter more hand held work.  The constant reassuring of this power distribution enforces the confrontation on the audience again and again till they are in tight association with the other guests removed from the central plot.

FESTEN’s unique approach to camera work and juxtaposition on DV media remains rivaled only by Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy; at least in it’s linking of the technical with the conceptual.  The cinematic ideas presented in the film work not only to confront an audience, but the notion of “proper” cinema among critics in that it does so little of the ordinary but still maintains a suspension of belief.

-Robert Curry

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