1998, R, 101 min. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Starring Bjarne Henriksen, Helle Dolleris, Trine Dyrholm, Birthe Neuman, Paprika Steen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Henning Moritzen, Ulrich Thomsen.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 20, 1998
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Could it be the stench of all those Klingenfeldt family skeletons tumbling from the closets during the course of the family patriarch's 60th birthday celebration? Christian Klingenfeldt (Thomsen) is too modern a fellow to be compared with Shakespeare's melancholy young Hamlet (though he does share many of the prince's attributes and troubles); however, Vinterberg's pivotal character in The Celebration could well have stepped directly out of a long day's journey in a Eugene O'Neill family melodrama by way of the discreet charm of a Luis Buñuel social gathering. This Danish film is an alternately funny and harrowing look at a family crisis, a meltdown that blends the needs of the truthsayers with the instincts of the let's-bury-our-heads-in-the-sand-and-pretend-none-of-this-is-happening types. “I already suffer from depression,” one of the cousins is heard to wail while fumbling for his pills as all hell breaks loose. Generations of the Klingenfeldt clan and friends of the family have gathered at the family's country estate/hotel on the occasion of patriarch Helge's 60th birthday. His three children -- Christian, Michael (Larsen), and Helene (Steen) -- have returned also, but the gathering is thick with the absence of Christian's twin sister Linda, who was buried just a few weeks prior to this reunion. When Christian raises his glass to say a few words about his dead sister and toast his dad, appalling intra-familial accusations rush from his mouth. The targets and guests politely turn a deaf ear, but Christian continues his charges throughout the evening. But still, the liquor flows and the food courses keep coming. The kitchen staff has stolen all the guests' car keys, so as in any good farce, there is no possibility of exit. The family's blanket insensitivity to the sordidness of Christian's accusations is compounded by the shameless racism they display upon the arrival of Helene's black boyfriend. Despite the social depravity exposed by the situation, these troupers carry on with the utmost decorum. Shot with a hand-held video camera, The Celebration has an intimate, spontaneous feel that befits the subject matter. Vinterberg's decision to film in this manner was ordained by his participation in Dogma 95, the manifesto of a film movement he helped found along with director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom). The Dogma 95 collective wrote a “Vow of Chastity” that listed 10 rules of purist filmmaking by which its directors were to abide. Chief among them were such things as shooting only on location without additional props, costumes, or sound recording, using only hand-held cameras, rejecting genre efforts and works not existing in the present, and renouncing the auteur concept. The primary goal of the Vow, however, seems to be its utter rebuff of the cinematic status quo and its desire to shake the foundations of filmmaking to their very core. Though The Celebration abides by these concepts (except for the “confession” of his transgressions from the Vow that Vinterberg includes with the press materials), they are happily conditions that suit the subject matter perfectly. And, ironically, through this anti-auteurist effort, Vinterberg, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, and the unflappable cast have created a virtuosic work.