Winner of the Special Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, director Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration is a product of 'Dogme 95,' a collective of Danish filmmakers (including Breaking the Waves' Lars von Trier) who signed a 'vow of chastity' in 1995 promoting 'pure' moviemaking: everything on location, no sets or outside props, handheld camerawork, direct sound, no opticals or filters, no flashbacks, and no director's credit. Dogmatic to the bone, the statement also asserted, '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...' Whether a heartfelt mission, a craftsman's game or a publicity stunt, this manifesto-for all its rules and regulations-has generated a movie that's like a European variation on a John Cassavetes family psychodrama.
Audiences unaware of Vinterberg's vow will simply take note of the picture's on-the-fly camerawork and murky visuals that sometimes have the look of video transferred to film. But, in spite of its excessively rough style, The Celebration draws the viewer in with its immediacy, emotional rawness, and elements of surprise, shock and suspense. Tearing away layers of social decorum and family skeletons, it exerts the same queasy fascination as a grim highway traffic accident.
The celebration of the title is a 60th-birthday gathering at the country estate of wealthy patriarch Helge Klingenfeldt (Henning Moritzen). Coming in for the big day are Helge's surviving children: Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), a successful restaurateur still mourning the recent suicide of his twin sister; Helene (Paprika Steen), a free-spirited anthropologist, accompanied by her black boyfriend; and Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), a quick-tempered failure with a bitter wife and three young children. Helge asks Christian to say a few words in tribute to his late daughter, but his eldest son already has a speech prepared, a speech with a punchline to the solar plexus: 'Here's to the man who killed my sister...'
From the start, Vinterberg clues us in that this will not necessarily be a festive celebration. Michael spies Christian walking along the road, and unceremoniously ejects his wife and kids from the car so he can have a private conversation with his brother. When Michael arrives at the family mansion, he discovers he's been left off the guest list. Helene moves her things into her late sister's room and takes a morbidly avid interest in the circumstances of her death. Kim (Bjarne Henriksen), the master chef and a childhood friend of Christian, appears to have some mischief planned, as do most of the downstairs help. Indeed, once Christian publicly exposes his father's history of sexually abusing his twin children, Kim and the servants conspire to prolong the old man's humiliation by hiding all the guests' car keys. Elsa (Birthe Neumann), the family matriarch, and an undaunted toastmaster try their best to ignore the cataclysm exploding in their faces, as the party devolves into a surreal spectacle of human desperation and vile behavior. Imagine the most awkward social situation you've ever been in, multiply by a two-digit number, and you'll have a rough approximation of this bizarre birthday blowout.
In setting up the premise, Vinterberg makes the most of his self-imposed limitations, employing quick-darting camera movements, unorthodox angles, and rapid cross-cutting among the various players. As night falls, however, the images become excessively grainy, to the point of abandoning any real visual interest. Fortunately, by that time the party has become so rife with tension, your attention is guaranteed through the final moments.
In the spirit of 'forcing the truth' out of the characters, Celebration features a high caliber of ensemble acting. Thomsen underplays effectively as the twin who's been harboring so much pain and anger since childhood, while Larsen brings an unpredictable quality to his volatile younger brother. Veteran Danish actor Moritzen is altogether persuasive as a formidable man of privilege who arrogantly refuses to face the monster inside him, and Neumann is terrific as his icy wife. Steen is feisty as the rebellious daughter, and Gbatokai Dakinah makes an appealing audience-identification figure as her outcast lover.
The ironically titled Celebration is anything but a feel-good movie, but its blunt exploration of the underside of family life surely won't leave art-house audiences feeling indifferent.