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The Celebration
When three Danish siblings come together to host the 60th birthday party of their domineering father, the family gathering yields bitter confrontation instead of happy celebration. The eldest son...  View more >

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[--- Good ---]by  
Jan 25, 2000
The Celebration (1998)

One thing can be said about Christian Klingenfeldt - he's his own man. At the start of Thomas Vinterberg's 'Festen' ('The Celebration'), Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) is walking by himself, a country road stretching before him. He has left France, where he now lives, and his destination is his family's estate in Denmark, the occasion his father's sixtieth birthday party.

Thomas Wolfe's wisdom comes to mind at some time during the narrative: You can't go home again. The message Vinterberg makes clear is that many people would not want to go home. In fact, Christian belongs to one of the more dysfunctional families in contemporary film, and the realism with which director and co-writer (with Mogens Rukov) Vinterberg portrays the ugliness is remarkable because it is engaging.

Early on we also meet Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), Christian's peculiar brother. Michael thinks nothing of kicking his wife and kids out of the car so that he might drive Christian the rest of the way to the estate. Later we see Michael's shabby treatment of his wife in more detail, followed by mutually abusive sexual rough-housing. This scene in particular demonstrates love mixed with hate, a clearly identified motif in the work. Michael and Christian are not the only troubled offspring of the patriarch Helge Klingenfeldt. There is their sister Helene (Paprika Steeen), also grown, also affected by what we discover must have been an unpleasant, even traumatic, childhood.

To complicate the familial tension, Christian's twin sister has died, a suicide, just weeks before this reunion. When the sister is discussed, we can almost feel her presence at the country house, as Christian takes on the role of a 'doppelganger.' The twin has left a note for each of the immediate family, and after a series of secret convolutions that result in Christian reading the note penned for him, we witness an amazing display of blind determination. Christian's mission leads him to make mind-numbing accusations of his wealthy and respected father. What's unusual is that the words come in the form of several toasts, delivered in a casual tone before the huge extended family. As Christian's condemnation of his father is continually interrupted - once by Michael's beating him and tying him to a tree in the nearby forest - Vinterberg sketches in masterful dark comedy.

In 1995 Vinterberg allied himself with a group of directors in Copenhagen, starting a movement named 'Dogme 95,' the tenets of which promote a pure 'cinema of the moment.' Accordingly, 'The Celebration' is shot on location, with no makeup, no dubbed sound, no fixed cameras, and virtually no 'brought in' props. (Vinterberg published a 'confession' in which he admits covering one window with a black drape to alter the light in one scene; he also approved the construction of a hotel reception desk, though the materials were found on site.) The product of Vinterberg's vision is shot through with a fascinating, naturalistic nervousness. Yes, the film could be more cleanly edited and smoothly shot, but the jerkiness actually compliments the flavors of claustrophobia, bitterness, anger and closeness. It's ironic that Vinterberg and his cohorts have preoccupied themselves with such standards, when the uniqueness of the photography and sets draws probably more attention than would any artifice.

As Christian, Ulrich Thomsen depicts a contained obsession with exposing his father's misdeeds. Thomsen's strength as an actor is visible in the insouciance with which Christian delivers the words that damn his flesh and blood. Henning Moritzen is quite good as Helge, the rich and manipulative stoic. Another stunning performance is turned in by Thomas Bo Larsen. We despise his Michael, but cannot stop watching him as his loyalty turns sour and finally strong.

Vinterberg opens another of the Klingenfeldt family's veins when Helene's boyfriend pulls up to the party in a taxi. Another conflict arises: he is black. Gbatokai (played by Gbatokai Dakinah) is apparently an American (who understands much more Danish than he speaks). The theme of brutality quickly surfaces when Michael's bigotry nearly starts a fight, and later when he incites a racist song inside the parlor, a ditty joined in gleefully by many members of the family. But Vinterberg knows that balance is often key to the worth of a story. When four of the characters let down their guards during a wild dance, we see the possibility of redemption and love, and we hope the characters see it too.

Vinterberg juggles big themes here, themes with overtones of Bergman and even of the great Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, whose play 'Ghosts' echoes with the statement, 'The sins of the father are visited upon the son.' What we see are some ultramodern spins womped up by a combination of witty risks - the tour-de-force of the repeated toasts - blended with virtuoso cinematography. 'The Celebration' has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. I was surprised that so many English expressions turn up in the speech of the Danish characters. I think that Americans, at least the ones that get past the subtitles, will find several more reasons to like the film. It is so refreshing to see a non-American point of view. Although 'The Celebration' is as heavy and dark as stories get, I would recommend it as an affirmation both of life and of fresh approaches to filmmaking.

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