Celebration, The (Denmark, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

From Ingmar Bergman to Jodie Foster, film makers throughout the years have been fascinated by what happens when members of a dysfunctional family gather for a celebration. Inevitably, dark secrets come to light, intrigues are put into motion, old rivalries are renewed, and new revelations change existing relationships. Some films tackle these ingredients far better than others. Handled poorly, this material can be the foundation of a painfully trite motion picture. Executed intelligently, however, it can have a profound impact. Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration is one of the best cinematic explorations of this subject, and the result is unsettling.

The occasion for the celebration is the 60th birthday of the clan's patriarch, Helge (Henning Mortizen). Everyone is coming home for the party, including Helge's sons, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) and Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), and his daughter, Helene (Paprika Steen). Missing from the roster of invitees is Christian's twin sister, Linda, who recently committed suicide. The reason for her action, and the repercussions from it, form the basis of the shocking and painful events that transpire during a twenty-four hour period. In the midst of dinner, Christian makes a startling accusation, and, even as the disbelieving guests are choosing sides, the film slowly unwraps the truth.

One of the key elements of The Celebration is the style in which it is presented. Filmed using a shaky, hand-held camera with natural lighting and little or no post-production (other than to transfer the video image to a 35 mm negative), Verterberg's approach mimics the look of a home movie. The effect is to make the viewer feel like he or she is part of the action; an impotent observer seated at the table with all of these individuals. It is a sometimes-unnerving experience. The characters become real to us, and their actions take on an importance they would not if the circumstances seemed less intimate.

If the style looks familiar, that's because it resembles the approach used by director Lars Von Trier in Breaking the Waves. Von Trier, Vinterberg, and two other Danish directors signed a pact (after the production of Breaking the Waves) called "Dogme 95." A rejection of Hollywood's fascination with special effects, Dogme 95 touts the value of cinematic simplicity: hand-held cameras, natural sound and lighting, location filming only (no sets), and no computer manipulation of images. The Celebration is the first feature to bear the Dogme 95 seal of approval, meaning that it meets the standards established by the charter.

The script, which transcends the clich├ęs of the genre, is another reason for The Celebration's success. Vinterberg and Mogens Rutov have penned a tight, taut screenplay that addresses twisted family dynamics in an immediate way, by combining effective drama with an undercurrent of dark humor. The film touches on issues like child and spousal abuse, racism, and revenge, and, in the process, it shows how difficult it can be to differentiate between love and hate when the line between them becomes blurred.

The Celebration features a gallery of memorable characters. First and foremost is Christian, the quiet, passive son. Played with coiled intensity by Ulrich Thomsen, he has a haunted-but-determined look in his eyes. By nature, Christian is not the kind of man who seeks a confrontation, but this is one struggle he cannot run from, and Thomsen does an excellent job of conveying his unease. Christian's polar opposite is his brother Michael, who is essayed by Thomas Bo Larsen. Larsen's portrayal presents Michael as a thoughtless, vicious brute who terrorizes his wife and anyone else who doesn't agree with him. It is unclear how deeply the events that molded Christian's life affected Michael's development, but there is clearly a link. The third child, Helene, is a portrait of camouflaged sadness. Like Thomsen and Larsen, Paprika Steen uses her skills as an actress to bring her alter-ego to life. The other major character, Henning Mortizen's Helge, is something of an enigma. Undaunted by the limitations of Helge on paper, Mortizen gives human dimensions to a man who, in another movie, might have been a banal villain.

The Celebration has been accorded the kind of international recognition that is often given to challenging motion pictures. It was an official selection at numerous film festivals, including Cannes (where it was the co-recipient of the Jury Prize), Toronto, and New York. October Films is giving it the same kind of release that was used for Breaking the Waves, and with good reason - despite thematic dissimilarities, the two films are cousins. Not only do they share a stylistic approach, but they are both emotionally draining. The Celebration rips apart the placid facade of a familiar subject, leaving its audience stunned. As difficult as the film can at times be, the patient viewer will be rewarded.

Celebration, The (Denmark, 1998)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1998-10-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In Danish and English with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1