[Last Film I Watched] The Celebration (1998)

The Celebration poster

English Title: The Celebration
Original Title: Festen
Year: 1998
Country: Denmark, Sweden
Language: Danish, German, English
Genre: Drama
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Writers:
Thomas Vinterberg
Mogens Rukov
Music: Lars Bo Jensen
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Cast:
Ulrich Thomsen
Henning Moritzen
Thomas Bo Larsen
Paprika Steen
Trine Dyrholm
Birthe Neumann
Helle Dolleris
Lars Brygmann
Therese Glahn
Bjarne Henriksen
Gbatokai Dakinah
Klaus Bondam
Rating: 7.9/10

The Celebration 1998

The very first feature from Dogma 95 movement, Thomas Vinterberg’s audacious family exposé sets its narrative entirely within a one-day spell, Christian (Thomsen), a seemingly-decorous man comes from Paris to celebrate his father Helge’s (Mortizen) 60-year-old birthday at their family-run hotel in a rural Denmark, other family members and friends are also invited, including Christian’s younger sister and brother, Helene (Steen) and Michael (Bo Larsen).

Frenetically embracing itself to the Dogma 95 doctrines and its trimmings, the film plays out like a horror movie that anticipates the low-budget found-footage creepiness, natural lighting counterpointing its formal grandeur of the event, hand-held camera slithering around like an insidious creature from all possible approaches to observe the impending drama. Vinterberg pulls no punches from Michael’s horrendous excesses, insolent, finicky and randy, a male chauvinist pig (with the plot thickening, violence and racism would in no time join up), he is egregiously obnoxious, which trenchantly conveys the impression that he might be the black sheep in the family, who could cause some riot and embarrassment to his holier-than-thou parents, that’s a splendid trick to set the premise. On the other hand, a more haunting undertow trickles in concerning about Christian’s twin sister Linda, who committed suicide of late in one of the hotel room’s bathtub. Through a jumpy montages of actions occurring in each sibling’s rooms (boosted by a brilliant idea of peeping from an angle of surveillance), Helene discovers a note Linda left in the latter’s room, its context would give the final word about the dirty secrets concealed in this family.

The main event of the day is the birthday banquet, Helge, a quintessential upper-crust patriarch, having a stable marriage with Else (Neumann) over 30 years, is well positioned to enjoy that particular day, before all the congratulatory mirth would uncomfortably dissipate after Christian’s bomb-dropping toast, not one, not two, but three, vitriolically aiming to his parents. He is relentlessly charged, to seek out justice in his own term (also on behalf of Linda), and the guests’ much subdued reaction has been palatably teased out to an almost implausibly farcical sphere, hypocrisy and self-denial run rampant whilst the celebration must go on, at least on its face value (aided by a ludicrous car-keys hiding scheme conceived by the chef). Suddenly, it reminisces of Luis Buñuel’s surreal allegory THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962), no one can leave the party, where moral corruption and sickening frailties are perturbingly disclosed. Vinterberg displays a shrewd discernment of the socio-psychology among his subjects, and the ensuing pay-off is uncompromisingly gripping, until the finale sets its ambiguous tone on the aftershock. What happens happens, the surviving damaged goods have to carry their bloodline no matter what, a human tragedy stems deep from the vein of human nature’s vice and cruelty .

The Danish cast illuminate with affecting performances galore, Thomsen as the silently-fuming Christian, Steen as the unstably nervy Helene, Moritzen as the unfazed Helge all leave indelible marks in their conflicting narrative arcs; yet, it is Neumann, who kills in the scene of her double-edged speech, such an atrociously refined poise achingly testifies that her Else, should be condemned with no less culpability than her children-molesting husband, and in her final shots, she still vainly attempts to come clean out of it, that is a truly extraordinary scene-stealer. Finally, a disconcerting gripe falls on to Bo Larsen’s Michael, a shifty-looking youngest son, he is the bad seed who inherits all the deflects from his parents, and the fact that Vinterberg chooses him to stand in a moral high-ground over them does contribute to some ill-feeling of this otherwise groundbreaking feature film, a liberation from machine-bound unwieldiness and trimming down all the usual accessories, puts the thorny narrative in the centre with raw fierceness and closeness, ultimately, it hits like a sledgehammer, take that? Lars von Trier!

Oscar 1998  Celebration

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