The Celebration

Thomas Vinterberg's wickedly funny tale of sexual abuse disclosed at a family reunion.



In 1995, four Danish directors announced that there was something rotten in the state of filmmaking. Together they formed Dogme 95, a loose collective of artists who swore to abide by the 10 points of the group's "Vow of Chastity." Like most vows of chastity this promise was disingenuous, though it did stimulate the directors to creatively manipulate those vows.


Sincerity aside, the Dogme rules were meant to strip the filmmaking process down to its basics. Shooting had to be done on location with a hand-held camera, and all lighting and sound had to be natural.


Those limitations, combined with the provocative temperaments of the Dogme founders, resulted in a handful of grainy-looking films that displayed more smugness and misanthropy than innovation. These included Lars von Trier's The Idiots, in which a coed commune wandered through Denmark pretending to be mentally disabled; Kristian Levring's The King Is Alive, a tale of stranded bus passengers who stage a production of King Lear in the desert; and in America, Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy, in which Ewen Bremner plays a schizophrenic who talks to a poster of Hitler and conceives a child with his sister, played by–who else?–The Brown Bunny b.j. girl Chloe Sevigny.


Tiresome as the nose thumbing could be, at least it was an ethos. Stripped of such provocation–as they were for Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners–the Dogme rules rendered a film that was just as contrived and sentimental as Hollywood fare, only now it also looked like shit.


All the more reason to see The Celebration, the first and still the best of the Dogme productions and one of the best films of the 90s. Conceived by Thomas Vinterberg (Dogme does not allow directorial credit, either), The Celebration has a dramatic ferocity that totally fulfills the Dogme goal of discovering truth by limiting artifice.


Vinterberg's iconoclasm is just as aggressive as von Trier's, but in The Celebration it supports a worthy story: a son's attempt to confront his father's childhood sexual abuse of he and his twin sister, who has just committed suicide. The confrontation occurs at his father's 60th birthday party. Naturally, Vinterberg has the son disclose the abuse during a toast in front of all of his father's friends and family.


The ensuing conflict is by turns raucous, hysterical, and poignant, pitting the kitchen staff against their master and siblings against each other. The subject matter may offend some, but for those who like their comedy raw, The Celebration is essential viewing.


--Joshua Avram

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