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'The Celebration' Offers A Dysfunctional Home Movie.

By Poly Higgins

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  HOME MOVIES ARE enjoyable because of their lack of structure. The point isn't to capture beautiful shots, present a cohesive narrative or follow a main character, but instead to construct a collage that offers a general impression of a particular gathering or event. The result might not be an accurate overview, but at least it lacks an overbearing sense of authorship that guides the audience to focus on particular scenes, props, or moments of dialogue. The Celebration, described by director Thomas Vinterberg as a Post-Digital Neorealist film, offers viewers a similar look at a bourgeois Danish family assembled for the 60th birthday party of the patriarch, Helge Klingenfeldt. The approach is appropriate and compelling, as the camera becomes yet another partygoer who aggressively pursues a realistic group portrait.

Vinterberg and friend Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots) received attention at Cannes last spring in part because of their filmmaking manifesto, Dogma 95, and the "Vow of Chastity" they signed with two other Danish directors. Both documents are a response to what they consider the overuse of new technologies in contemporary moviemaking, from special effects to post-dubbed sound, as they distract from the exploration and development of the characters. Drawing upon conventions of 1940s Neorealist films such as The Bicycle Thief, they pledge to adhere to rules such as only shooting on location, recording all sound while filming, and using hand-held cameras and natural light.

The Celebration was shot with a lightweight video camera, and this helps to provide viewers with a fly-on-the-wall look at the inner workings and problems of a seemingly successful and functional family. The camera travels independently from character to character, following them throughout a huge estate. This, coupled with the editing, contributes to the varied pacing of the story; it begins frenetically as friends and family arrive in fast cars with screaming kids, and ends calmly after the Klingenfeldt skeletons have been exposed.

The loosely structured narrative is anchored by an incredibly long celebratory dinner, which consists of multiple courses, tangential chatter, alcohol-soaked outbursts and declarations of family secrets. The over-30 diners as well as a staff of servants all contribute to this portrait, though the birthday boy's adult children are particularly important. Michael, desperate to inherit the family business, is a loud, wife-beating drunk; Helene, oblivious to the family's problems by choice, is a chain-smoking anthropologist; Christian, suspiciously quiet, is a successful restaurateur; and Linda, Christian's twin, is dead, having committed suicide two months earlier. During the first course of a yummy seafood-based soup, Christian, in the first of many toasts, announces that he and Linda were raped by their father throughout their childhood.

The reaction to Christian's news is a striking nonreaction, and at this moment the lack of a post-dubbed soundtrack becomes especially obvious. As most movie music tends to be incredibly manipulative, its absence becomes especially noticeable. All that is heard after his announcement is the ambient noise of silverware clacking, and this focuses attention on Christian and how uncomfortable and vulnerable he feels. It's hard not to imagine that if this were usual commercial fare, "Lonely Boy" or some other soundtrack-friendly song would by playing in the background.

Though Christian's storyline is important, as it clearly exposes the rotten core of his family, all of the attendees have varying degrees of personal baggage and neuroses that feed the overall soap opera. And when the kitchen staff hides their car keys, the guests are forced to stay and see this wealthy family in all its twistedness.

The two-hour film is done in close-to-real time, as the actual dinner covers only a few hours. This also helps flesh out the characters, because we primarily see them engaged in mundane activities. It is through these everyday actions that we are provided with the essence of this group, as Michael assaults his wife, Helene pops pills, a family friend complains of depression, and a senile grandfather makes the same toast twice. All details, large and small, are given equal screen time.

The Celebration is satisfying because it's thematically focused and stylistically open. Most viewers can dip into their own lives to connect with the pervasivness of family melodrama, and this is facilitated by the emotionally driven (rather than plot-driven) characters. At the same time, however, the audience is not guided by a strong directorial presence. The camera offers much to look at, and we decide what is important. Personally, watching my sister on video doing the funky chicken at a wedding is just as interesting, if not more so, than the ceremony itself. Viewing The Celebration, I felt the same kind of pleasure in discovering these family members through a series of character-defining vignettes.


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