The Celebration (1998)

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

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The Celebration begins with an image of the Dogme 95 manifesto, declaring a vow to make films centered around story, theme and the performances and less around extraneous technology.  This meant all lighting had to be natural to the environment and all sound had to be diegetic (recorded while recording and not added in later).

This style of filmmaking is certainly extreme when compared to another 1998 movie, Deep Impact which itself is also a little extreme.  As movies were probably getting bigger and bigger, Vinterberg and another director, Lars Von Trier started the Dogme movement in an effort to forcibly yank filmmaking back towards the roots of a good story with interesting characters.

This entire film takes place in or around a large countryside mansion.  Everything is centered on the performances of a family and their friends.  The camera spends more time intimately hugging the characters than it does showing you the environment.  It’s like almost every shot is hidden camera footage that just so happens to be feet or even inches away from the actors.  The camera whips this way and that, and the wide angle lens emphasizes this movement, making everything feel caffeinated and hyperrealistic.  While there are numerous shooting techniques designed to heighten a character’s state of mind while distancing the film from reality, The Celebration‘s cinematography somehow further grounds it in reality and yet creates this extreme environment in which every interpersonal interaction feels like a fight.  The camera hurries from one person or thing to the next, and while this style of filmmaking is gripping and feels experimental, it never separates us from the film’s reality.  I feel like I’m getting lost in myself as I try to describe this, but here’s an example of what I’m trying to say.

Take this scene from Requiem for a Dream:

The cinematography on Jared Leto’s face heightens the reality to something outside of what we observe in the world.  His reality is not ours (because drugs), and often times, simple filmmaking tricks (like lighting or framing) are meant to make the story world feel a certain way that is strange to us, considering the world we come from.

Now here’s a scene from The Celebration:

The camera moves incredibly quickly (though only in a brief moment of the sequence which doesn’t show the entire car scene), and it kind of feels like this scene has dusted you with adrenaline.  Maybe it’s the camera quality or maybe it’s the lack of music, but the editing style never felt to me like a separation from a relatable world.  Instead it emphasizes a character’s state of mind without creating an unbelievable world.  After I watch a scene from Requiem for a Dream, again for example, I don’t get the sense I live in their world.  With The Celebration, I do feel like I know that world.

Now, the nature of the story is disturbing, and that’s where it becomes something foreign to anything I’ve ever witnessed and hopefully the same goes for you.  It’s a story about a man, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) who confronts his father with what he did to him and his recently deceased (suicide) twin sister when they were children.  The father, Helge, raped the two of them on multiple occasions, and Christian wants to make sure everyone knows so he can enact revenge on his father and, to a lesser degree, his mother who also knew what had happened.

So the fact that the world feels real is important, I think, because the idea of the story is that Helge has gotten away with his crimes and is beloved by the people who have all gathered at his home to celebrate his 60th birthday.  He blends into their society, and he might blend into ours too.  The reveal is meant to be shocking, and it is, but it takes a while before the accusations are confirmed.  The guests seem intent on ignoring what Christian claims until they no longer can.  To make this world feel real is to make the story more grotesque.  The family drama is both tragic, absurd and in some cases amusing, but that feeling of amusement only comes from the denial you or I might feel about Christian’s accusations.

Christian makes a toast in front of everyone towards his father in which he first says that Helge raped him and his sister.  He says it quietly, and he doesn’t call extra emphasis to that statement.  He merely continues his story and sits down.  No one knows how to respond, and when Christian walks out (after everything seems to go on as normal), his sister, Helene, apologizes for his dark sense of humor, thus explaining away what he said.

I first saw this film in a college course a few years ago, and all I really remembered about the story was this reveal.  In my memory, though the reveal happened much later in the film and was the defining moment of the story.  It surprised me then, that Christian says this pretty early in the story and nothing seems to come of it right away.  It’s not a bombshell, instead it’s reacted to like someone ignoring when their neighbor clearly just farted.  They just pretended not to notice.

Helge vists Christian in private and talks to him like you might talk to someone significantly dumber than you, but with some affection.  The story becomes more complicated and you wonder if there’s any possibility that Christian is making this up, and suddenly you’re right there next to the guests who don’t want to believe that Helge is guilty, because it reflects poorly on them for never noticing and for not acting now.

When Helge talks to Christian, he claims to not know what Christian was referring to.  It’s as if he’s instructing his son to forget that this ever happened with the belief that he can truly convince him of this.

Christian returns with another toast, building on his previous one and accusing his father of being responsible for his sister’s suicide (which is very much the case).  Christian’s brother, Michael, beats him up and with the help of two other men, ties him to a tree.

The damage has already been done as the seeds of doubt are planted, and Christian’s disappearance raises some eyebrows because Michael and his cronies didn’t exactly dispose of him quietly.

When the story begins, Christian seems to be the favorite child.  He’s a successful chef (which makes his parents proud), and his calm nature contrasts with his chain-smoking sister and with Michael’s erratic personality.  Michael is the black sheep.  When he checks into the large hotel-like mansion, he’s not on the guest list despite being the man of honor’s son.  He is desperate to get back into his father’s good graces, and when his father rewards him with a gift that Christian rejected, Michael suddenly becomes the most loyal of his sons, acting more like a soldier than a human.  He dutifully protects his father and harms anyone who speaks ill of him (despite his father’s original distaste for his own son).

So when Christian speaks up the third time, Michael takes it upon himself to throw him out.  Helene’s boyfriend, Gbatokai, a black man whose presence challenges Michael’s racism, confronts Michael about what he did to Christian.  Gbatokai is super awesome, and you can tell he’s someone you want on your side.

Christian’s plan isn’t over yet because he has the entire kitchen staff on his side.  The chef, Kim, is a boyhood friend who was warned about the plan and is willing to help out by sending the waitresses (one of them, Pia, is in love with Christian) to collect the guests’ car keys so they can’t escape.  Christian wants to tear down his father, and he wants everyone to see so that his father’s reputation is burned to the ground.

Early in the film, Helene found a note hidden in the wall of Christian’s twin sister’s old room, the one in which she killed herself.  The note is a suicide note that mentions their father’s sexual abuse.  Helene finds this early in the film, but she keeps it hidden until after Christian has been kicked out of the house.  This is the only part of the film that feels a little too easy.  Up until this point, Helene has known about the note (and thus the abuse) and refused to do anything about it.  She pretends the note means nothing to the man who uncovers the note alongside her, and she hides it in her purse.  She has remained steadfast in suppressing the truth.

But everyone’s fighting gives her a headache, so she goes to the bathroom and asks one of the waitresses to fetch her purse for her, either forgetting or not caring that the note is in the purse.  The waitress finds the note and tells Christian about it so that the next time he sees Helene, he makes her feel guilty about knowing the truth and not defending him.

What doesn’t quite work is that Helene never seems to make that change from “I’ll say nothing” to “I’ll read the note” other than the guilt she’s forced to feel from Christian.  This only happens because she forgets about the note when she sends the waitress to get her purse, and I don’t think she would forget that.

But either way, she reads the note and the entire room is stunned silent.  Helge confirms his guilt by angrily telling Christian that [the abuse] was ‘all he was good for.’

Michael, even more offended by the truth than Christian because it challenges everything he wants to believe, beats his father up, and for a moment you think he’s going to kill him.  But he doesn’t, and the next morning everyone is cheerfully eating breakfast together.  Christian seems like a new man, finally able to heal, and Michael too seems happier than we’ve ever seen him before.  Helge and his wife come in, and everyone falls silent.  Helge makes a speech about loving his friends and children even though he knows they will always hate him and never see him again.  It’s probably earnest but also a last attempt to grab some authority.  Before making this speech he even taps the glass with his silverware as if making another toast (every single tap of the glass becomes more ominous throughout the film so that next time I’m at a large dinner and someone softly taps their glass, I’ll probably flinch).

Michael is the one who tells his father to leave so they can eat breakfast in peace.

Jesus Christ, right?

This movie is so good.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film use sexual abuse to get the story going.  Usually it’s something in a character’s tragic backstory or it comes out as a reveal in a highly emotional climax.  Here, though, it’s the first step in Christian’s plan.  The story isn’t about the sexual abuse so much as how the guests (and we) deal with such sensitive and brutal allegations.

Helge and others reveal that Christian is a bit unstable, and that this might be the reason he says what he says.  Of course, it’s probably safe to assume that Helge’s violence is what caused Christian to be this way, and this makes Helge’s argument all the more disgusting and violating.

You know, a lot of movies struggle to make a good villain.  Like Superhero movies, for example.  In every Marvel movie I can remember, I didn’t care about the villain so I didn’t care when the villain was defeated (and anyways, you know the villain will be defeated).  I suggest you cast Henning Moritzen (who played Helge) in every villain role and require people to see The Celebration first.  The first time you see him onscreen battling Captain America or something, you’re going to pray for his demise.  Unfortunately, Moritzen passed away in 2012.

Anyways, this film is incredibly entertaining until it becomes horrifying and tense, at which point it’s still very gripping.  The film begins with a long shot of a lonely road down which walks Christian to his father’s celebration.  Michael drives by with his family and after recognizing his older brother, he kicks his family out of the car so he can give Christian a ride.

The film ends with a tight shot on Christian’s face, his plan complete.  It’s a nice bookend to the film (and I love clean bookends to movies), and it’s appropriately haunting given what we now know about the central character of the movie.  He seems to be healing (even though this entire story requires him to dive back into old wounds he probably wished to forget), but despite asking Pia to live with him in Paris, he doesn’t seem to have moved past what happened, and he probably never will.

What’s more telling is how the people around him act.  During the tense dinner, everyone was quiet, praying what they were hearing wasn’t true.  Imagine being one of the lavishly dressed people at Helge’s celebration.  You’re there to worship a man who you are learning is a monster.  You’ve already had a few glasses of wine, and you don’t want to stop.  But if what his son says is true, how can you possibly keep drinking?  It’s easier for the guests to ignore what’s being said than to consider the possibility it might be true.

Despite the allegations turning out to be true, the next morning everyone talks as if nothing happened.  It never feels like a natural conversation but rather like a manic conversation of people desperate to pretend what they heard the night before never happened.  They only briefly consider the horrible truth and then go back to normal as quickly as possible.  Christian, though, can’t return to normal, and there might never have been a normal.

So while everyone carries on, he remains trapped.  Sure he’ll still move forward, making plans, living a life, but he’ll never feel as free as Michael (whom we learn has committed his share of infidelities and beatings [of the waitress with whom he had an affair] yet never faces any consequences simply because Helge’s crimes are worse).

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