Dir: Mona J Hoel. Norwegian. 2001. 95mins.

A family whose skeletons come out of the closet when they get together for the holidays is not exactly a new idea, but Mona J Hoel's Cabin Fever explores this well-worn theme within the framework of the Dogma manifesto to create a Chekhovian drama that is both fresh in its approach and distinctive in its visual style. The film's best asset is its ensemble cast of accomplished Norwegian and Polish theatrical actors who put on a display of dramatic fireworks that is intensified by the rigorously natural production techniques and the densely packed space in which the film is shot. The Dogma label and film's distinguished cast should give it a solid commercial run domestically and will also serve to heighten its visibility on the global arthouse and festival circuit.

When the Dogma group issued its manifesto several years ago, many cynically accused it of being little more than a publicity stunt to hype the latest offering by Lars Von Trier. However, after a series of films produced to its demanding strictures with varying degrees of success, a truly alternative form of film-making has been defined that has proved it can produce satisfying results when applied to the right project. Luckily, Hoel has chosen a story that lends itself ideally to the form, relating the tale of a nightmare Christmas spent by an extended family in the confines of a holiday cabin in the mountains. The moving video camera, the lack of formal sets and costumes, chronological shooting and natural lighting and sound give the actors and the direction a sense of freedom and spontaneity and allows the energy and dramatic tension to build in one long, uninterrupted flow.

The film begins with the individual members of a Norwegian family, mom, dad and their four grown-up children and their respective families, including their Polish in-laws, getting ready to spend a traditional Christmas together in a mountain cabin. But the tension between them begins develop almost as soon as they arrive in the cramped cabin with the kerosene stove breaking down, one grandchild suffering an asthma attack, one of the daughters bursting into tears over the break-up of her relationship with her boyfriend, another confiding she has just had a miscarriage and the alcoholic father already nipping into the vodka.

In the claustrophobic confines of the snowbound cabin the parents and their adult children begin to reveal their real feelings for each other in increasingly cruel exchanges as they go through the motions of a traditional celebration while their Polish in-laws become an unwilling audience. In one scene good-natured Stanislaw (Zamachowski) who is married to one of the daughters tries to diffuse the situation by singing Polish ballads along with his father Olek (Nowak) which provides a momentary release but in the end neither the Poles nor the Norwegians can understand each other and the mounting tension threatens to explode. Finally the Christmas celebration breaks up in a drunken brawl as the son tries to kill his father and everyone departs for their homes leaving the parents alone.

This is a film made of the dialogues between the characters as they strip away layer after layer of themselves. The actors turn in tour de force performances that are tightly scripted but appear almost improvisational in their freshness. The obvious presence of the camera within the confines of the cabin only serves to heighten the stifling sense of claustrophobia and unwanted intimacy, while Hoel has edited the film down to essentials to give it a relentless tempo. As a story we may have seen it done before but we have rarely seen it done better.

Prod co: Dis Film As
Int'l sales: Trust Film Sales
Prod: Malte Forsell
Scr: Mona J Hoel
Cinematography: Robert Nordstrom
Ed: Helene Berlin
Cast: Kari Simonsen, Svein Scharfenberg, Grrild Mauseth, Benedicte Linbeck, Bjarte Hjelmeland, Irena Kwietkowska, Jerzy Novak, Zbigeieniew Zamachowski