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The Celebration: A Family (Dys)Function

In the current age of filmmaking, most directors tend to utilize a film’s production budget through detailed sets, filming technologies, or complex CGI to provide a sense of verisimilitude towards a film-viewing audience to better enhance a sense of immersion into a film’s world. However, in 1995, Danish directors Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier crafted 10 self-imposed filming limitations with Dogme 95, a film movement focused to simplify filmmaking and bring audience focus towards the performances and the writing of a film. Among the 10 rules a film had to follow to be a certified Dogme 95 film were guidelines such as the filming camera being handheld the entire time without the use of a tripod or resting the camera on a surface, the film had to be shot on location and any props used had to be found within the same location, and the director could not be credited among other rules. While the movement of Dogme 95 was brief, the first film made in these conditions, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998), is a landmark example of dramatic filmmaking due to its low production budget being a reflection of the film’s story, the use of strong performances, and the implementation a multi-layered screenplay.

Image from The Celebration: A medium shot of Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) being embraced by Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen)
Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) and Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) embrace on the country road leading to their family-run hotel where their family is gathering for the birthday celebration of their father Helge (Henning Mortizen).

From the start, the stark production budget is felt by the use of silent title cards being shown in water before cutting to grainy, hand-held shots of the main character Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) wandering a country road towards his father’s titular birthday celebration before being picked up by his younger brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), who’s shown driving with his family on the way to the same family gathering, kicking his family out of his car so he can drive Christian there alone. Within the first five minutes of the film, the audience is immediately thrown into a unique film-viewing experience where the clean imagery that is associated with watching a movie is immediately discarded by the use of grainy imagery that is given a sun-baked yellow tint due to lack of proper lighting and poorer film quality of using a modest hand-held camera that cannot use finer film stock due to the imposed limitations of the Dogme format, almost preparing an unexperienced film-watching audience for the unappealing dramatic revelations of familial sexual assault that is as ugly as the images being displayed.

The stark title card sequence, unbeknownst to a first-time viewing audience as a visual quirk, also hints at the familial tragedy of Christian’s twin sister Linda’s bathtub suicide on a purely image-driven connection to the water reflection given to the title cards that pairs with the watery trauma that is central to the film’s dramatic strife. Later in the film, Christian is gathered with Michael, his sister Helene (Paprika Steen), and the rest of the family in a large room before the start of the birthday lunch in which the various members of the family converse amongst themselves as the scene is shot in various shaky handheld sequences. This moment brings an air of homemade family video footage due to the imperfect nature of shooting by hand instead of using a camera tripod due to the Dogme standards, bringing a great sense of audience immersion towards the footage being shown as real people talking to each other, instead of actors portraying characters, if it was shot in a perfectionist manner. Furthermore, this moment of the film highlights a sense of voyeurism due to the home video feeling of the shots as both the upper-class nature of the family and the soon-to-be-revealed sexual crimes of Helge (Henning Moritzen) would not be seen by a typical viewing audience in the real world, so the footage instead works as a viewpoint of that unseen perspective due to the unkempt filming method being uncomfortably realistic.

Image from The Celebration: A medium shot of Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) holding a green paper in one hand, and a yellow paper in the other hand.
Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) holding a green paper in one hand containing a speech for his father Helge (Henning Moritzen) to choose to hear, and a yellow paper in the other hand containing a different speech that Helge can also choose for Christian to read.

The flashpoint incident of Christian revealing that his twin sister’s suicide was due to sexual abuse they both received from their father as kids to the entire family gathered at the dining table is delivered in a neutral form of tone that’s almost disregarded by some of the family members present in the room as a strange joke or is immediately ignored before they can fully comprehend what they just heard. The almost nonchalant manner that Christian reveals the hidden trauma to the family is as shocking to a first-time audience as it would be to the characters of the film as there’s no dramatic buildup that would allow assumptions to the presence of a horrific backstory beforehand with the absence of soundtrack buildup or use of dramatic zooms on Ulrich Thomsen’s face as he’s delivering his lines. The almost silent reactions of the surrounding actors further provide authenticity to the nature of the characters, as their feigned ignorance of this revelation would be expected from a real-world upper-class family that would try to hide their shock and horror to keep their illusion of high social standing to separate themselves from a lower-class family who would be overrepresented in the same stories of familial abuse and trauma.

Later towards the film’s climax, as Helene tearfully reads the suicide note from Linda at the dinner gathering that confirms the accusations of sexual assault that Christian revealed, Helge tries to distract from the scathing letter by trying to toast the letter itself. But the staff refuses to follow his directions, resulting in an outburst of anger before he cruelly states that Christian and Linda’s assault was all that they were good for, and he leaves the room for the remainder of the night. This moment is an ultimate highlight of an actor at the top of their craft as Paprika Steene’s tearful recitation of the letters harrowing final words is made all the more powerful without the use of sappy orchestral strings that would pull an audience away from the naturalistic feeling of the film, focusing instead on a mostly visual method of forlorn faces being shown silently listening to the words being read by the actor as it would happen in real life, making the scene more-powerful due to little superficially being  added to force an audience response.

Contrasting with the moment of audience sympathy from Steene, Moritzen’s display of abject cruelty and a lack of social awareness effective brings a sense of contempt from a viewing audience that’s made all the more palpable by his delivery of an outburst that is fitting of a revealed criminal which contrasts the dignified figure that was presented early in the film. His statement of his children being only good for their assault is delivered in such a venomous and cold tone that it is fully effective in making the character completely reprehensible, making Moritzen as effective an antagonist as imaginable due to the unredeemable nature of justifying his abuse.

Image from The Celebration: A medium shot of Helge (Henning Moritzen) and his wife Else (Birthe Neumann) sitting by each other at a dinner table.
Helge (Henning Moritzen) and his wife Else (Birthe Neumann) sit at the dinner table as Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) reveals the sexual abuse that Helge committed decades ago.

While Christian’s reveal of his father participating in sexual abuse of his children is rightfully shocking and disturbing, it is hinted earlier in the film that Christian may be unreliable as a character due to mental health struggles he experienced throughout most of his life. This presence of doubt allows for audience intrigue and speculation to the possible outcome that Christian’s story could be false, intentional or not, providing a greater sense of audience involvement in the story’s development as the multitude of factors present in the film can provide evolving perspective changes that would cause a straightforward approach to feel stale and unrewarding. Furthermore, the theme of sexual assault accusations coming from a potentially unreliable source but still causing irreversible damage allows for audience conversations on the nature of accusations after the viewing experience ends, fostering further bonds to the film due to the intriguing nature of such themes that would be further explored later in Vinterberg’s directorial career with The Hunt (2012).

Another example of The Celebration‘s effective writing is when Michael gets the family to participate in a racist sing-along song when Helene’s boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah), who is Black, taunts Michael after he kicks Christian out from the dining room two separate times due to exposing his father as a sexual abuser as a sign of support towards Christian, causing Helene to become outraged that Michael and the rest of the family are participating in the song. Vinterberg highlight’s the toxic nature of Michael as the previous scenes of both marital infidelity and abuse towards his wife are compounded with his apparent racism to make him a representation of the negative aspects of upper-class masculinity as he’s desperately trying to inherit his father’s business by trying to keep an orderly image through both mental and physical intimidation. Also, Vinterberg reveals that disregarding the actions of Helge within the film, upper-class Danish families as seen in the film would still have intrinsic negative qualities like their systemic racism to due a lack of racial integration in Denmark and Scandinavian countries alike in general populations, let alone wealth groups which have a typically white demographic make-up in most world continents.

Image from The Celebration: A close-up shot of Helge (Henning Moritzen)
Helge (Henning Moritzen) listens to Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) read his speech revealing his sexual abuse.

While it may look unpolished due to self-imposed rules, Thomas Vinterberg’s film is made an effective viewing experience due to the way its visuals match the themes of the film, the use of great actor performances, and the utilization of great writing. While film budgets continue to rise high outside of niche indie markets, the film industry becomes an unrecognizable concoction of artificial blockbusters and event extravaganzas. And while after The Celebration and Von Trier’s following Breaking the Waves, the wave of Dogme 95 unfortunately receded before it could affect the mainstream film industry, a wave has the potential to come back in force with time.

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