Cinema: Stripped down to its manifesto

Festen (Celebration) (15) Thomas Vinterberg; 106 mins The 39 Steps (U) Alfred Hitchcock; 86 mins Kini and Adams (no cert) Idrissa Ouedraogo; 93 mins
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Three years ago, a young Danish director, Thomas Vinterberg, and Lars Von Trier (director, Breaking the Waves) came up with the Dogme Manifesto, vowing to make films without tripods or sets or artificial lighting. They wanted to "purge film so that once again the inner lives of the characters justify the plot." The Manifesto was discussed a lot at last year's London Film Festival, in a rather smug way, but Vinterberg got away with all his holy chat (and confessions about actually having built a hotel reception set) because he is drop-dead handsome - healthy, whopping shoulders - and his film Festen was the best film at the Festival. It went on to win the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, and is quite brilliant.

Festen takes place in the summertime in Denmark. At a country hotel the staff are gearing up for the 60th birthday party of its bourgeois proprietor, Helge (Henning Moritzen). His children are on their way. The successful eldest son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) walks from the station, down a dusty sunny road. The flaky daughter, Helene (Paprika Steen) takes a taxi, smoking dope all the way. The loutish youngest son, Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), drives with his tough wife and three children - he missed his other sister Linda's recent funeral, and is not welcome.

Before dinner the children snooze and sit anxiously in their separate rooms. There is an atmosphere of bacterial calm. That evening, the dinner in full swing, Christian drops into his speech that Dad sexually abused him and Linda (his twin) throughout their childhood at the hotel. He makes a toast: "To the man who killed my sister. To a murderer."

At this point, the film takes on a kind of genius honesty. Instead of the usual hysteria - actors with emotions working faster than their brains, all supple with intrigue and fury - the party continues, drawing nothing but embarrassed air into its lungs. The subsequent deterioration of the evening into yellings and scraps and slappings and people trudging over the gravel to the safety of their cars, happens very slowly, with all the creeping surrender and volition of real life.

Festen is shot throughout on tiny digital cameras, resolutely like a video - grainy and chaotic. Incredibly, this is never irritating. Instead it brings all the film's secret hurts home to us in a proudly pedantic way. It is full of the tantalising frustrations of home movies - snatches of conversations, or words just floated into the air, words from people whose faces we might forget. Only you never forget them. All those Danish children with their pale-chocolate skin and white hair; Thomsen with his tender neck and small, precise, virginal mouth, drawn with utter exactitude, making everybody else's mouths seem even more blurred and unfocused than Vinterberg's camera could possibly have contrived.

This makes Festen so very intimate, but at the same time there is nothing miniature about it. We can absolutely feel the wide coolness of the countryside as it gives in to the green evening; feel the massive hotel with all its kitchens and attics and stories. At the close of the film, the hotel feels like an orphan or a refugee - a place that has lost everything.

The Barbican's "Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Celebration" opens with his 1939 adaptation of John Buchan's The 39 Steps. Robert Donat stars as a Canadian on holiday in London, forced to search for enemy spies while being hunted by the authorities as a murderer. This is an excellent thriller, and one that pitched enthusiastically and economically into anxieties about National Security and Nationhood, whilst Fascism loomed both here and abroad. It's also delightfully warm and (accidentally) funny.

At the beginning of the film, Donat meets a foreign agent played by Lucie Mannheim. She has an indeterminate Eastern European accent ("I haaff no countree") and eyebrows plucked to within an inch of their lives, but he takes her home anyway, to his flat in Portland Place, and feeds her haddock. He doesn't seem at all flummoxed by the enemy spies mooching in the phonebox across the street, nor particularly shocked when Mannheim staggers into his bedroom in the middle of the night with a knife in her back helpfully clutching a map of Scotland with a circle round Alt-na- Shellach. Being a sporting kind of chap (and a dead-ringer for Errol Flynn), he heads to the Highlands where he claims to be a motor mechanic, but is soon handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, and averting his eyes as she peels off her wet stockings.

My favourite part involves the Herefordshire sheep who star in The Scene With The Car. They were wheeled into the studio for the day and managed to eat everything they could get their jaws around, driving Hitchcock to distraction (never trust a sheep with a perm). The season also includes Hitchcock's earliest thriller The Lodger, and a new print of Vertigo.

Kini and Adams headlines the NFT's season of films from the African director Idrissa Ouedraogo, whose prize-winning Yaaba (which features in the programme alongside his superlative Tilia) brought him to international attention in the late 1980s. Kini and Adams is his first English-language film and is set in Zimbabwe. David Mohloki and Vusi Kuneni play life- long friends whose desire to free themselves from a poverty-row existence is embodied in a clapped-out Rover that they have been lovingly rebuilding for years, much to the annoyance of Kini's wife. They both find jobs at a local mine, but their loyalties and finances are quickly compromised and the pair are soon at war. Despite Wally Badarou's comely score, and Paul Meurisse's ambitious images of the increasingly industrialised African landscape, Kini and Adams is a perfunctory film, with none of the genuine conflicts and fierce love that drove Ouedraogo's previous work - there is little here that can be described as evocative or mysterious, and there's little to decipher.

Incidentally, anyone who didn't stay to the end of the credits of A Bug's Life will have missed the "out-takes" of the bug "actors" flouncing off to their Winnibago's and collapsing and complaining that the boom is in shot. These have been righteously popular and the distributors have just supplied a heap more. Undoubtedly worth crashing the last moments of a screening to take a look.

Comments