Of all the holiday films to be dished up in the next two and a half
months, no picture will serve as a better pre-Turkey Day appetizer than Thomas
Vinterberg's The Celebration. A
pseudo-cinéma-vérité chronicle of a patriarch's birthday
party gone horribly awry, its video-format-blown-up-to-35mm alone is enough to
evoke unnerving flashbacks to one's own similarly recorded occasions. The
wobbly hand-held camera, the suffocatingly tight close-ups, the elderly
relatives arguing about soup, the sense of utter vulnerability and inescapable
doom as the inveterate hostilities surface and the shattering revelations
rumble -- it's the Saving Private Ryan of family-reunion movies.
It's also one of the best films of the year and one of two so far spawned by
"Dogma 95," the "vow of chastity" issued a few years back by four Danish
filmmakers, including Vinterberg and Lars von Trier of Breaking the Waves
and The Kingdom fame (the other movie, Trier's Idiots, has
been labeled by many who have seen it as all too deserving of the title).
Condemning such artifices as special effects, non-ambient music, props, and
even camera booms, the dogmatists dedicated themselves to a "supreme
goal . . . to force the truth out of . . .
characters and settings."
Or so they said. Subsequent events (Trier is making a musical; Vinterberg is
reading Hollywood scripts) suggest the whole thing may been a gag, if not a
publicity stunt. In the case of The Celebration, though, dogma has paid
off. An experience of lacerating, often giddying immediacy, it also weighs
heavy with a legacy of myth and ritual ranging from the sacrificed kings of
Frazer's The Golden Bough to the bitter roasts of countless holiday
celebrations to come.
The film begins minimally enough with the Bunyanesquely named Christian
(Ulrich Thomsen) strolling down a road in the middle of nowhere, muttering
fragments to an unknown interlocutor on a cell phone about the beauty of his
father's estate and something shocking to come. He's on his way to the
60th-birthday party of dad Helge (Henning Moritzen), which will bask in the
Elsinore-like splendor of the patriarch's manorial hotel. Picked up en route by
his black-sheep brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) -- who in typical chivalrous
fashion boots out long-suffering wife Mette (Helle Dolleris) and his children
to make room for his brother in the car -- Christian joins his sister Helene
and the dozens of other dotty and dour friends and relations gathering for the
So far the film has careered ahead with a seeming spirited chaos, but a
parallel-edited sequence around the theme of bathing underlines Vinterberg's
perhaps too meticulous calculation. Helene searches the bathroom in which
Christian's twin sister recently committed suicide for a message she may have
left as Michael takes a shower and Christian ponders a glass of water while
housemaid Pia undresses for a bath in an unsuccessful attempt to seduce him.
Helene finds the note, Michael slips on a piece of soap, and Christian falls
asleep in a cryptic climax prefiguring the histrionics to come.
These explode with perverse glee before the increasingly tested complacency of
the celebrants -- though in fact everything's as tightly structured as the
minutely timed, and seemingly subversive, multi-course dinner orchestrated by
the manor's chef, Kim (Bjarne Henriksen), Christian's boyhood pal and possible
co-conspirator. Christian doesn't fall asleep when called on to deliver his
toast -- instead he drops a bombshell, not once but repeatedly, until the film
takes on the absurd repetition of Buñuel's dinners from Hell in The
Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Trapped in a nightmare of denial, guilt, rage, and impotence, the family -- and
the not-so-innocent bystanders unwittingly caught up in the ceremony -- seek
catharsis in a rite as old as Greek tragedy and as crass as Jerry Springer.
Ambiguous if inevitable, seemingly spontaneous but meticulously choreographed,
The Celebration might have fizzled without its amazing performances. As
Christian, Thomsen barely conceals a maelstrom of torment, fury, and remorse
behind a bleak reticence, and his scenes with Moritzen's monstrous and pitiable
father suggest countless other such encounters over a lifetime of tyranny,
manipulation, and deceit. And love, too -- its persistence is the hardest thing
in the film to accept and the easiest to recognize. Whatever the ultimate fate
of Dogma 95, Vinterberg's movie is cause for celebration.