Celebration trots out that old chestnut, the “dark family secret,” to enliven a birthday party for the 60-year-old patriarch of a large Danish clan. Director Thomas Vinterberg has signed onto the Copenhagen-based Dogme 95 collective of filmmakers, agreeing to a “vow of chastity” that precludes the use of props and constructed sets as well as any optical effects, special lighting, post-synchronized sound, or anything but handheld camerawork. The result is an edgy picture that’s all the more impressive for what it does within its rigid aesthetic, but ultimately delivers less than it promises.
Ulrich Thomsen is Christian, one of three adult siblings arriving at the party. Sister Helene and brother Michael are regarded by the family as somewhat less successful than Christian. The fourth, absent sibling is Diane, Christian’s twin, who drowned herself in one of the house’s bathtubs just two months previous to the gathering. Christian remains shattered by the loss, not least because he was the only family member not to receive a final telephone call or letter from his beloved sister. When Christian stands to make a speech, it’s not to celebrate the family but rather to excoriate it, bringing some troublesome demons out of the past and into the harsh light of the present.
Despite the nature of Christian’s revelations —- he claims that, as children, both he and his sister were the unwilling objects of dad Helge’s incestuous sexual desires — the unflappable gathering is not scandalized, but merely taken down a notch for a moment or two. Dad denies the allegations, and Mom makes a point of Christian’s active imagination and his difficulty separating fantasy from reality. Sullen and increasingly intoxicated, Christian plans to intensify his attack on the facade of normalcy that the family hides behind. In denial, Michael eventually responds to the allegations by dragging Christian out of the house altogether.
All this is played out shrewdly and with a keen eye for social comedy. The film is overall witty and absorbing, the performances are on-target, and a few scenes here and there are astonishingly lucid. I was especially fond of a moment when Christian, having been beaten up and thrown into the dirt outside of the house, stands up and totters away from the aggressors as though his spirit has been broken before breaking into an awkward run for the door. Best of all, the kitchen staff (including Pia, who has a long-standing crush on Christian) is in on the elder brother’s plan. The cooks and servants ensure that Christian will have a captive audience by rifling the coat pockets of the dining guests, stealing their car keys and tossing them in the freezer.
Also effective is the sense that the house is haunted, not literally but figuratively, by the ghost of a suicide. And more upsetting than any of the talk about incest and suicide is the scene where, after Helene’s black boyfriend arrives at the party, Michael leads the revelers in an effortless rendition of an old racist drinking song about a “black Sambo.” For a few moments, Vinterberg extrapolates the blissful ignorance of this family to some larger cross-section of Scandinavian culture, and that’s where the movie sinks its teeth in.
In the end, though, the film seems like much ado over not much at all. Maybe it’s just that we’ve been subjected to so many tales of incest and sexual abuse coming to light that using yet another variation as a story hook doesn’t carry as much dramatic weight as it should. For whatever reason, Christian’s pain seems more abstract than real, embodied as it is in the lovely memory of his beautiful sister, one that is wisely shared with the audience toward the end of the film. Moreover, the decision to shoot with available light on a bare-bones location may be in accordance with the Dogme 95 vows, but the result is as much a tentative theatrical exercise as it is the disciplined, uniform filmmaking called for by the collective.
Finally, I’ve got to say that this tactic of shooting on video and then transferring to film is starting to wear me out. Popularized by fellow Dogme signatory Lars von Trier, who used it to good, semi-documentary effect in Breaking the Waves, I’m sorry to see it exalted in the supposedly truth-finding work of Dogme 95 filmmakers. While the effect can be striking, it’s also distracting to see video artifacts blown up and exhibited on a big movie theater screen in a way that should be anathema to filmmakers seeking truth at 24 frames per second. In other words: “Congratulations, Mr. Vinterberg. You have succeeded in making your film look more like television.”
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Written by Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov
Cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle
Edited by Valdis Oskarsdóttir
Starring Ulrich Thomsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, and Paprika Steen
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.37:1, per Dogme 95 specs