You have to wonder if there’s something in the water in Copenhagen. Stuff just never seems to go right. More than four hundred years after Shakespeare’s day, there’s still something rotten in the state of Denmark, and director Thomas Vinterberg aimed to dynamite it into oblivion with his 1998 film The Celebration.
The film was the first of the Dogme 95 movement, in which a group of Danish filmmakers (including Lars Von Trier) decided to forgo all “tricks” of the trade in making their films. That means no special effects, no sound editing, and completely natural lighting – in fact, The Celebration is one of the first films in the world to be shot entirely on digital video cameras. That constraint forces Vinterberg to take us entirely too close to his subject, a family reunion at a well-to-do hotel in the Danish countryside.
It’s clear that something is a little bit off in the opening scene, when Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) kicks his wife and kids out of his car so that he can give his brother Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) a ride to the hotel. And there is a recent tragedy which haunts this family, that much is clear from the scenes in which they meet. But it’s not until Christian stands up to give the first big toast at dinner that we realize how damaged this family is. It’s at that moment when this movie, which was already of high quality, kicks its intensity up several notches.
This movie bears a lot of similarities with other media set amongst the British upper crust, such as Gosford Park or Downton Abbey. You have the rich owners of the estate upstairs in the dining room, the servants downstairs in the kitchen, and the occasional affair between them. But Vinterberg is not aiming for a soap opera atmosphere like in Gosford Park. He’s delivering a biting satire, a brutal skewering of the hypocrisy of the Danish upper class. The key difference is that unlike Gosford Park, The Celebration is not afraid to embrace the absurd. After a crushing speech by Christian, the idea that the party can still go on as though nothing had happened is simply crazy, and Vinterberg enjoys working in those crazy spaces.
However, the servants in this film as really just bit players, appearing as needed to enhance Vinterberg’s sledgehammer wit. There’s no one servant in this film who has a backstory as deeply developed as Kelly MacDonald’s character in Gosford Park, and that is on purpose. Vinterberg wants to save that level of depth for Christian and his family, because their drama is the one that gets us closest to the upper-class hypocrisy at stake. There’s barely any character to the black boyfriend of Christian’s sister – we never even find out what he does for a living – but we don’t need that to see the ugly racism that is lurking beneath the family’s classy veneer.
The film doesn’t look pretty, but it isn’t designed to. Vinterberg wants his colors to be blown out and his shots to be occasionally blurry, because it adds to our level of intimacy with these characters. It is as if the audience is a member of the party, getting an offhand and slightly out-of-focus glance at the drama going on. Just as Christian’s trauma is based upon a horrible memory, so does this party look like a memory, like it is being placed into a family album even as it is happening. The Dogme 95 aesthetic wasn’t perfect – von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves caused widespread seasickness in viewers even as it raked in the Oscar nominations – but this is the one movie in which it worked perfectly.
The ending of The Celebration is the only part of it which fell flat for me. Without spoiling anything, the movie is too overt in saying that certain characters “won” the various intra-family conflicts and others “lost” them. The crime that Christian is alleging is almost never admitted in real life; criminals in that area assert their innocence, even in the face of physical evidence or from behind bars, until death. So the closing scene, although powerful, ultimately rings a bit false. We already know who the winners and losers are: every rich person in Denmark loses against a satire this effective, and the audience wins just for having seen it.
Reviewed by Mark Young