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The Boston Phoenix Fete To Be Tied

Vinterberg wags the Dogma

By Peter Keough

NOVEMBER 2, 1998: 

Of all the holiday films to be dished up in the next two and a half months, no picture will serve as a better pre-Turkey Day appetizer than Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration. A pseudo-cinéma-vérité chronicle of a patriarch's birthday party gone horribly awry, its video-format-blown-up-to-35mm alone is enough to evoke unnerving flashbacks to one's own similarly recorded occasions. The wobbly hand-held camera, the suffocatingly tight close-ups, the elderly relatives arguing about soup, the sense of utter vulnerability and inescapable doom as the inveterate hostilities surface and the shattering revelations rumble -- it's the Saving Private Ryan of family-reunion movies.

It's also one of the best films of the year and one of two so far spawned by "Dogma 95," the "vow of chastity" issued a few years back by four Danish filmmakers, including Vinterberg and Lars von Trier of Breaking the Waves and The Kingdom fame (the other movie, Trier's Idiots, has been labeled by many who have seen it as all too deserving of the title). Condemning such artifices as special effects, non-ambient music, props, and even camera booms, the dogmatists dedicated themselves to a "supreme goal . . . to force the truth out of . . . characters and settings."

Or so they said. Subsequent events (Trier is making a musical; Vinterberg is reading Hollywood scripts) suggest the whole thing may been a gag, if not a publicity stunt. In the case of The Celebration, though, dogma has paid off. An experience of lacerating, often giddying immediacy, it also weighs heavy with a legacy of myth and ritual ranging from the sacrificed kings of Frazer's The Golden Bough to the bitter roasts of countless holiday celebrations to come.

The film begins minimally enough with the Bunyanesquely named Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) strolling down a road in the middle of nowhere, muttering fragments to an unknown interlocutor on a cell phone about the beauty of his father's estate and something shocking to come. He's on his way to the 60th-birthday party of dad Helge (Henning Moritzen), which will bask in the Elsinore-like splendor of the patriarch's manorial hotel. Picked up en route by his black-sheep brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) -- who in typical chivalrous fashion boots out long-suffering wife Mette (Helle Dolleris) and his children to make room for his brother in the car -- Christian joins his sister Helene and the dozens of other dotty and dour friends and relations gathering for the occasion.

So far the film has careered ahead with a seeming spirited chaos, but a parallel-edited sequence around the theme of bathing underlines Vinterberg's perhaps too meticulous calculation. Helene searches the bathroom in which Christian's twin sister recently committed suicide for a message she may have left as Michael takes a shower and Christian ponders a glass of water while housemaid Pia undresses for a bath in an unsuccessful attempt to seduce him. Helene finds the note, Michael slips on a piece of soap, and Christian falls asleep in a cryptic climax prefiguring the histrionics to come.

These explode with perverse glee before the increasingly tested complacency of the celebrants -- though in fact everything's as tightly structured as the minutely timed, and seemingly subversive, multi-course dinner orchestrated by the manor's chef, Kim (Bjarne Henriksen), Christian's boyhood pal and possible co-conspirator. Christian doesn't fall asleep when called on to deliver his toast -- instead he drops a bombshell, not once but repeatedly, until the film takes on the absurd repetition of Buñuel's dinners from Hell in The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Trapped in a nightmare of denial, guilt, rage, and impotence, the family -- and the not-so-innocent bystanders unwittingly caught up in the ceremony -- seek catharsis in a rite as old as Greek tragedy and as crass as Jerry Springer.

Ambiguous if inevitable, seemingly spontaneous but meticulously choreographed, The Celebration might have fizzled without its amazing performances. As Christian, Thomsen barely conceals a maelstrom of torment, fury, and remorse behind a bleak reticence, and his scenes with Moritzen's monstrous and pitiable father suggest countless other such encounters over a lifetime of tyranny, manipulation, and deceit. And love, too -- its persistence is the hardest thing in the film to accept and the easiest to recognize. Whatever the ultimate fate of Dogma 95, Vinterberg's movie is cause for celebration.

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