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CELEBRATION, THE (FESTEN)(director/writer: Thomas Vinterberg; screenwriter: Mogens Rukov; cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantle; editor: Valdis Oskarsdottir; cast: Ulrich Thomsen (Christian), Henning Moritzen (Helge), Thomas Bo Larsen (Michael), Paprika Steen (Helene), Birthe Neumann (Elsie), Helle Dolleris (Mette), Trine Dyrholm (Pia ), Therese Glahn (Michelle), Bjarne Henriksen (Chef), Gbatokai Dakinah (Gbatokai), Klaus Bondam (Toastmaster), Lene Laub Oksen (Linda); Runtime: 105; October Films; 1998-Denmark)
“This is a Dogma-95 styled film, where the Danish filmmaker’s group manifesto determines the rules for how the film is to be made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a Dogma-95 styled film, where the Danish filmmaker’s group manifesto determines the rules for how the film is to be made. The idea is to give their films a fresh look and for them to provide the unexpected, and to catch on film the complete truth from its characters and their situations. This film was shot with a small video camera (a Sony PC7) that fits in the palm of your hand, then it is transferred to the prescribed Dogma 35-millimeter format. I suppose it is fair to assume that one of the reasons that this manifesto was drawn up in 1995 by four Danish filmmakers–Christian Levring, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, Thomas Vinterberg, and Lars von Trier–was to give them publicity and challenge the film community to create innovative films. So far the only two films I saw from this group, von Trier’s The Idiots & Breaking the Waves, have been challenging and impressive films.

For those interested in what their Dogma document actually states, I give you the following example:

“1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. (If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.)

“2. The sound must never be produced apart from the image or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)

“3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place.) “4. The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure, the scene must be cut or a single lamp [must] be attached to the camera.)

“5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

“6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

“7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)

“8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

“9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

“10. The director must not be credited.

“Furthermore, I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a ‘work,’ as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.”

Rules like that rub me the wrong way. What I ask from a film is for it to be imaginative and well-made, and I don’t particularly care how the filmmaker accomplishes that.

Henning Moritzen is Helge (played with a restraint and a certain brilliance, not allowing himself to become a stereotypical villain). Helge, a prosperous patriarch, is celebrating his sixtieth birthday by having his family and friends come to his country-estate hotel for his bourgeois birthday party, complete with a hired toastmaster (Bondam) to keep things looking well-organized and professional. The celebration will turn into a feast of dark family secrets revealed “bombshell style” in front of all the guests and hotel staff, while everyone tries to catch their breath and figure out how to act.

It would be impossible to go into the minute details of the film without immeasurably spoiling it for the viewer who hasn’t seen the film. My pleasure in seeing it was that I was caught completely unaware of what was to occur and that shock kept me absorbed in the story, not quite knowing what to expect next. This might be the secret reason why the film worked so well, as I was made to feel like one of the guests in this theatrical film.

The psychically crippled children and their estranged relationship with their father is the key to the story. Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) is the eldest son brooding that his twin sister, Linda, has within the year taken her life in her bathtub. He missed her funeral, which was the last family gathering and hasn’t seen anyone in the family for quite some time. He is living in Paris, even owning a few restaurants there. But Christian’s reason for coming to this party has a definite purpose, it is to let his father know what has been on his mind ever since childhood. He will be able to accomplish this mission with the help of the hotel staff who keep the guests from leaving by stealing their car keys and with the help of the chef (Bjarne), his childhood friend, who will see to it that he gets a chance to get his message across to everyone present at the gathering. He will also get solace from the pretty waitress Pia (Trine), who is in love with this troubled soul.

The youngest in the family, Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), Christian’s volatile brother whom the family is ashamed of because of his crudeness and instability is married to a vulgar woman (Helle Dolleris), whom he treats like a dog. But, at least, he is the only one of the children to provide his father with three grandchildren.

Helene (Paprika Steen) is the flighty sister who studied anthropology and now wants to be a singer. She is suffering from depression and brings an American black man (Gbatokai) to the celebration, which will culminate in the families’ racist feelings coming out in the open. All the children are disappointments to the father. Their mother (Birthe) acts as the father’s voice of reason in all the family matters, trying to soothe out the wrinkles in their life by turning a blind eye to what she sees, until even she can’t look away any more.

The result is a work that is scathing, penetrating layers of deceit and festering wounds that cannot be healed. The guests were left confused by all the startling revelations they were privy to, some wanting to just leave but couldn’t, some trying to decide if what they were hearing was true or not but amazingly taking it all in stride as if they were shock-proof. But the weekend revelations couldn’t hold back was the cruel truth and an incomprehensible tenseness, even when all the disturbances are deftly handled by the toastmaster who tried to keep the traditional birthday party afloat with good cheer and dance and games. But it was to no avail.

To point out how the guests weren’t quite sure of anything that was happening there, they are shown eating lobster, or salmon, or tomato soup, each one unsure of what they were served.

Warning: possible spoiler to follow.

The Celebration is indeed a celebration not to be forgotten soon. It drains the emotions, somehow satisfies the intellect, and challenges the conventions of the usual fare of sophisticated family drama. I felt as if I was serving as a witness for this dysfunctional family, asked to judge the family patriarchal head as he is forced into finding out who he really is and what harm he has done to his children. Vinterberg declares how the impact of Helge’s revelation affected everyone in the immediate family and how that acted as a cleansing for the tribe, something that was essential for their psyches. At least, after the celebration they now have some kind of a shot of pulling themselves together, even though the film does not show any of them changing internally. They are still their old selves (good and bad) after the startling revelations about the father’s incest comes out in public, but only this time they are all on the right side and are more armed with information about what went on as they were growing up. And how the film accomplished this, was through good storytelling. This allows the film to be perceived as something that is reminiscent of Greek tragedy or of a Shakespearean drama.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”