In 1995, a group of Danish filmmakers banded together to create an artistic movement they dubbed "Dogma 95", which had the expressed desire "to purge film so that once again the inner lives of characters justify the plot." There were several rules such as filming location with existing props and sets, eschewing a musical soundtrack and shooting the film in color with a hand-held camera, among others.
Noted director Lars Von Trier was one of the first to sign on as was Thomas Vinterberg. Celebration/Festen is Vinterberg's contribution to this somewhat controversial and possibly tongue-in- cheek doctrine. The winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, the film centers on a family reunion to mark the sixtieth birthday of its patriarch. Drawing from such disparate sources as Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander and the British television drama Upstairs, Downstairs, Celebration eventually achieves its mission and presents a well-told and engrossing tale of a family imploding under the weight of long-buried secrets.
It does take some getting used to the herky-jerky camera movements and the other tenets of the "Dogme". For instance, I was keenly aware of the lack of a musical score; instead we hear natural sounds as we meet the eccentric family at the heart of the story.
The patriarch is Helge Klingefeldt, a successful businessman with a country estate that is where the titular party is being held. Then there are his three surviving children: Christian, the oldest and on the surface, the most well-adjusted (whose twin sister Linda committed suicide some three months before the story begins); Michael, the profligate middle child prone to violence and drinking; and Helene, the youngest with a messy love life. The children's lives are also interwoven with the staff. Kim is the head of the kitchen and one of Christian's closest friends while both sons have had dalliances with waitress/maids.
We follow the arrival of the guests and their preparations for the birthday party. When the hired toastmaster calls upon Christian to make a toast honoring his father — he shocks the assembled by revealing a deep secret about the guest of honor.
While on paper Celebration reads like a soap opera, it is more mythic in its aspirations and Vinterberg proves an efficient and entertaining director. (He's also movie star handsome as, like Alfred Hitchcock, he makes a cameo appearance in the film.) Working under the tenets of the "Dogma" which one might find confining has the opposite effect on Vinterberg. The fluidity of the camera work, with its strange angles and close-ups, draws the viewer in; one feels as if he or she is actually attending the event.
The actors all meet the challenge well with special mention to Ulrich Thomsen as Christian, who bears a striking resemblance to the young Laurence Olivier, Thomas Bo Larsen as the hot-headed Michael and Paprika Steen as Helene. This emotionally violent, brutal film is a fascinating look at a family on the verge of collapse. Vinterberg and company have created a party that the viewers won't soon forget.
Rating: A - MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content and language, including references to sexual abuse Running time: 105 mins.