Celebration, The (Festen)

DVD Cover
1998
Thomas Vinterberg

9/10 (not overly-enjoyable)

Masquerading as a simple family melodrama, this is actually a devastating emotional exploration of the way that a group of people will desperately try to deny the existence of the skeletons noisily rattling away in the closet.

It’s official title is “Dogme #1 – Festen” which is a reference to it being made under the guidelines of the Dogme 95 Manifesto, a film-making pact created and signed by Vinterberg and his “Dogme brother” Lars von Trier. This manifesto is one of the more interesting developments in modern cinema, as it was essentially a call for truth in movie-making. This meant that directors would rely on actual locations while filming, unable to use even minor props, and use only actual lighting and sounds, without any added sound effects or soundtracks. It’s basically hyper-realism, and it has a startling effect on the viewer even though it has been found virtually impossible to uphold for a director. Even the two originators of the idea have had to twist or neglect some of the rules to make their films work. In Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” the first true Dogme 95 film, he later confessed that he covered a window to adjust the lighting of a particular scene, a Dogme sin according to the manifesto (which doesn’t allow “props”).

What the Dogme style does to this film is lend it an air of reality and gravity that would have been completely lost if conventional filmmaking techniques had been used. It’s a story that takes place at a family reunion, so the handheld camera gives you the feeling that you are actually there at the reunion, taking part. This makes the scandalous revelation by one of the sons near the beginning of the film all the more uncomfortable and powerful. But this revelation is really the point of departure for the film, which occupies itself for the next hour or so in cataloguing the reactions of all of the family members, victims and culprits. It’s hard to do justice to the power that Vinterberg bestows throughout the story with mere descriptive words. The word “unbelievable” is the only thing that comes to mind. Not in the literal sense, because I did believe it, but rather in the sense that I couldn’t believe that someone had captured these emotional and psychological responses that felt so true and real. It was a fictional story that felt like a documentary. This is truth in filmmaking to the highest degree.

It’s almost unnecessary to say, but without spectacular acting Vinterberg could never have pulled this off. As it was, it left me almost gasping with amazement at what I was watching. There was nothing flashy at all — and in fact very little action occurs on-screen, another requirement of Dogme 95 — but the viewer is left dumbfounded at what they are saying. It is so spectacularly unexpected, yet completely welcome at the same time.

I was debating over the rating of this film for a little while, originally giving it a 10 just because it’s amazingly powerful and authentic. But it’s also really difficult to watch and doesn’t lend itself to repeat viewing. It’s not altogether enjoyable, even though it’s perfectly made and perfectly accomplishes what it sets out to do. I don’t give half-points, but you can consider it a “high 9”.

It’s such a weighty and intense viewing experience — something so out of the ordinary for the vast majority of movies — that you should see this film if you have any interest at all in the concept of truth in art.

23 March 2010

Other Reviews for “The Celebration”

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