The Celebration Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

It was much more dangerous when Dad had his bath. I didn't know if you remember, but Dad was always having baths. He'd take Linda and I into the study, as there was something he had to do first. Then he'd lock the door and roll down the blinds. Then he'd take his shirt off and his trousers and made us do likewise. Then he'd put us across the green couch that's already been thrown out now... and raped us... abused us sexually. Had sex with his little ones. A couple of months ago when my sister died, I realized that Helge was a very clean man... with all those baths... I thought I'd share it with the rest of the family. Baths summer, winter, spring, autumn, morning, evening... Helge is a very clean man. I wanted him to know that, seeing as we're celebrating his sixtieth birthday... what a guy! Imagine living a long life and watching your children grow up... and grandchildren. But you didn't come to listen to me. We've come to celebrate Helge's sixtieth, so let's do so! Thank you for all those great years. Happy birthday.

The cast of The Celebration

When you watch "The Celebration", a Danish film that was a co-recipient of the Special Jury prize at Cannes '98, you are drawn into an increasingly volatile and disturbing family gathering, the preeminent birthday party from Hell. And while it is an unsettling drama with a definite nihilistic streak of dark humor, it comes across as a very uneven effort that does not deliver the impact that is expected or desired. "The Celebration" starts off slowly as a confused jumble of scenes, thrown together without any apparent rhyme or reason, and winds up running out of steam at the point where it should be hitting an emotional high.

Danish patriarch Helge Klingenfeldt (Henning Mortizen) is turning sixty, and a birthday celebration is in order. As a result, Helge's friends and family converge on the family estate to take part in the festivities. Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), Helge's older son, is a well-behaved young man who shies away from any sort of confrontation. Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) is Christian's younger brother, a pugnacious lout who frequently flies off the handle at anyone who disagrees with him, including his wife (Helle Doleris). Helene (Parika Steen) is Helge's hedonistic daughter, and she is deeply troubled by the absence of Linda, Christian's twin sister who recently committed suicide.

Christian, can you hear me? Are you mad, Christian?
The birthday party from Hell

As the night drags on and as the revelers becoming increasingly intoxicated, old emotions surface, startling revelations are made, and old scores are settled. Helene finds a suicide note that Linda left behind. Michael becomes increasingly agitated, his anger inflamed by the years of having been ignored by his older siblings. And Christian, committing the most audacious act possible, publicly accuses his father of sexually abusing him and Linda when they were young. This accusation then becomes the catalyst for the ensuing chaos that engulfs the gathering for the rest of the night. The attendees, both the invited guests in the dining room and the staff working in the kitchen, end up taking sides as the truth is slowly and painfully revealed.

We'll steal their car keys.
What... us? Okay.
It's Christian's turn tonight. People must not go home yet.
I don't think he intends to say any more. He apologized.
Let's wait and see. Don't tell the older waiters... they need their pensions.

The most notable aspect of "The Celebration" is its technical presentation, or more appropriately, lack of technical presentation. Filmed with a $2000 palm-sized video camera (that was later transferred to 35mm film) and utilizing no background music, tripods, lighting, nor post-production work, director Thomas Vinterberg has created something akin to a home movie, which was exactly that same as what Lars von Trier did with "Breaking the Waves". This is no coincidence, as both directors helped to found 'Dogme 95', an artistic movement of film directors established in Copenhagen that declared itself:

...a rescue operation to counter certain tendencies in film today. Dogme 95 opposes the auteur concept, make-up, illusions, and dramaturgical predictability. Dogme 95 desires to purge film so that once again the inner lives of the characters justify the plot.

Vinterberg and von Trier were the first two directors to pledge loyalty to this vision, and together they wrote Dogme's 'Vow of Chastity'. This 'Vow of Chastitity' set out a series of strict rules that had to be followed, such as shooting on location without additional props, recording only natural sounds, avoiding genre conventions, and not using any 'superficial action', such as murder or firearms.

"The Celebration" was made in accordance to the requirements of Dogme 95, and while Vinterberg is being applauded for remaining devoted to his convictions, his finished product is far from perfect. On the one hand, the freehand camera work and use of jump-cuts help to minimize the distance between the audience and the on-screen action, making the viewer feel as though they are active participants in the midst of the increasingly bizarre gathering. However, this technique also becomes distracting after awhile, and actually detracts from the overall gravity of the film's more emotional scenes.

As mentioned earlier, "The Celebration" is wildly disjointed, moving forward in fits and starts. The first act is filled with a number of character-establishing moments, and though they are necessary, none of them come across as particularly compelling. Things then pick up significantly after Christian's accusatory toast, only to have the tension and sense of urgency quickly dissipate by the end of the second act, leaving an anti-climactic and seemingly pointless third act that leaves the characters with little to do.

However, Vinterberg has done well in assembling a strong cast for this film, and it is because of them that the film is still barely watchable. Performances to watch include Larsen as the erratic Michael, Steen as the troubled Helene who tries to put up a front to hide her pain, and Thomsen as the quiet yet vindictive Christian. In addition to this triumvirate, Vinterberg has populated "The Celebration" with a number of other equally eccentric, yet memorable peripheral characters, such as a bespectacled man who does nothing but complain about the car ride being 'hot'.

While "The Celebration" is certainly an edgy and unconventional film about dysfunctional families filled with memorable characters, the film never seems to succeed in maintaining its narrative momentum. And while the application of the Dogme 95 guidelines to the film's production is a novelty at first, it ultimately sabotages the emotional clarity that Vinterberg tries so hard to create.

Images courtesy of October Films. All rights reserved.

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