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Movie Review

Disturbing Party Is Cause for 'Celebration'


A family comes together to celebrate its patriarch's 60th birthday, but everyone is not in a festive mood. Adult children gather to nominally salute their father, but darker thoughts prey on their minds. It may sound familiar, but "The Celebration" ("Festen" in the original Danish) overturns expectations.

Winner of this year's special jury prize at Cannes, "Celebration" is a remarkably mature work to be only the second feature from 29-year-old director Thomas Vinterberg. A beautifully calibrated and carefully thought out film about a completely out-of-control situation, it is raw without being off-putting and wrenching without losing its sense of humor.

Best of all, "Celebration" allows the audience to share the same sense of emotional danger and uncertainty its characters feel. We're in there with them, watching the chaos happen all around, wondering where it can possibly end.

"Celebration" is so successful because it's that rare film that's as compelling for the way it tells its story as for the tale itself. The techniques used by the director and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle are as potent and effective as the excellent actors in conveying what Vinterberg and co-writer Mogens Rukov intended; any attempt to separate the film's elements, even in the mind, is bound to be futile.

"Celebration's" look stems from Vinterberg's commitment to the tenets of a collective of Danish directors (including "Breaking the Waves' " Lars von Trier) who call themselves Dogma 95. Dogma's rules include shooting on location without added props, using natural sound and available light at all times and doing all filming with nothing but a hand-held camera.

While some of Dogma's rules, like "the director must not be credited," have not been carefully attended to, the overall impact of this emphasis on naturalism is exceptional.


Hand-held camerawork, which can seem like an affectation, is used here to remarkable effect. It adds intimacy, immediacy and vitality to the piece, giving "Celebration" a connection to throbbing life it would not otherwise have. Moving around like one of the family, the camera brazenly eavesdrops on delicate situations, shrinking from nothing, showing and telling all.

Everything starts quietly enough as the camera picks up Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) walking with a suitcase through the Danish countryside. The family's serious, sober prodigal son, he's just flown in for the celebration from Paris where he runs two restaurants.

Headed down the same road in a sports car is younger brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), a bullying, unpleasant hothead who immediately reveals his character by forcing his wife, Mette (Helle Dolleris), and their children to walk the rest of the way to the celebration so he can offer brother Christian a chance to ride in comfort.

Arriving by speeding taxi is sister Helene (Paprika Steen), a scattered, emotional woman who appears alternately strong-willed and on the verge of a collapse.

Waiting for everyone at what appears to be a family-owned hotel are mother Elsa (Birthe Neuman) and father Helge (veteran Danish actor Henning Moritzen). He's a bit stern but caring and in general happy to see his children, especially Christian, who has not been in close touch.

Once upon a time, it's revealed, Helge and Elsa had four children. But Christian's twin Linda has committed suicide so recently that when Helene is given her room she almost can't bear to stay there. Could you say a few words about Linda at the celebratory dinner, Helge asks his son, and Christian says yes, he was planning to say something.

Extended family members and guests arrive by the dozen and everyone proceeds to get fearfully drunk. Michael has what feels like one of innumerable intense brawls with his wife, Helene explores her room to startling effect, and Christian has a reunion with childhood friends Kim (Bjarne Henriksen), now the evening's chef, and Pia (Trine Dyrholm), who's always had a crush on him.

Then, in the midst of considerable inebriated merriment, Christian rises to speak. Barely able to stand, he makes a horrifying accusation against his father. The words have an air of finality, but in fact a Pandora's box of jealousies, rivalries, countercharges and recriminations is just beginning to open.

Wonderfully acted by a well-cast ensemble, "Celebration" never quite goes where you expect it to, even managing to throw in comic moments amid its terrifying family dynamics. While most films about dysfunctional relationships fit neatly into a problem picture box, this wrenching but uplifting film finds its own way with energy and aplomb.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content and language, including references to sexual abuse. Times guidelines: some violence, sexuality and frank discussions of child molestation.

'The Celebration' ('Festen')

Ulrich Thomsen: Christian

Henning Moritzen: Helge

Thomas Bo Larsen: Michael

Paprika Steen: Helene

Birthe Neuman: Elsa

Trine Dyrholm: Pia

Helle Dolleris: Mette

Bjarne Henriksen: Kim

A Nimbus Films production, released by October Films. Director Thomas Vinterberg. Producer Birgitte Hald. Screenplay Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

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