By Christian Monggaard, film critic and reviewer at Information, 2006
At his father’s 60th birthday party, son Christian gets up and delivers a shocking speech. He reveals that he and his twin sister - who recently took her own life - were abused by their father as children.
Can this be true?
To begin with the guests simply don’t believe Christian. They are dismissive and try to make him apologise for his behaviour. But doubt begins to gnaw and soon the celebration gets out of hand. The final proof that Christian is speaking the truth is provided by the dead sister. She left a farewell letter, which is found during the celebration and read out aloud to all the guests.
Many people laughed when Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in 1995 launched Dogme 95 (Dogma 95). It seemed comic that dogma directors were forced to comply with 10 strict, almost primitive rules: hand-held camera, no artificial light, shooting on location and so on. (See also presentation of Lars von Trier’s film The Idiots (Idioterne). But the critics soon stopped laughing when results began to show and The Celebration won a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998.
According to Thomas Vinterberg, the script for The Celebration, which was written along with Mogens Rukov, more or less wrote itself and the application of the dogma rules to the making of the film acted in no way as a constraint, quite the contrary. Von Trier’s dogma rules allow the actors to move freely, with the camera following them, ever curious and seeking. The mobility and closeness of the camera is precisely what places the audience in the middle of the action. We become part of the drama.
Golden age of Danish film
The Celebration abounds in scathing satire and exciting drama. The film is key to the success that Danish film has experienced nationally and internationally since the mid-1990s. And Thomas Vinterberg ranks among the best of young Danish film-makers intent on telling a good story about their own generation to their own contemporaries.
The Celebration became one of the most successful dogma films abroad. It has been set up as a play all over the world, most recently in New York on Broadway. Dogma 95 helped to pave the way for the democratisation of production technology in film-making, brought about by the use of digital cameras.
Did you know?
Thomas Vinterberg was originally inspired by the P1 program Koplevs Krydsfelt from March 28, 1996, when a man named Allan told the story of how he and his sister were sexually abused by their father. Allan told how at his father's 60th birthday party he reveals the abuse during a speech.
The journalist Claus Christensen subsequently drilled in the case and found many details that did not match. Some years later, in Lisbeth Jensen's radio installation "After the party", it was revealed that the whole story was pure spin.
The committee's justification
By the Committee for Film, 2006
The celebration is a family drama that is without parallel in Danish film history. The basic premise is the father’s 60th birthday party, to which stream a mixture of dishevelled children and more or less anonymous guests. Ulrich Thomsen plays the dejected son who returns from abroad in order to finally settle the score with his patriarchal father, and he chooses to do so openly in public.
In his party speech, he reveals, brutally and directly, that his deceased twin sister had been subjected to repeated sexual abuse by his father. This information is so outrageous and unexpected that the guests do not know what to do, and it hangs like a pall over the rest of the afternoon and evening as an awkward curse.
Vinterberg’s and Mogens Rukov’s script gives room for both comic and vociferous minor conflicts and the major irreconcilable drama, where the viewer is driven from laughter to silent sympathy. The Celebration is the diametrical opposite to a feelgood film. It describes uncompromising individuals faced with the inevitable, and the pain within is of an extent that not even the truth can mitigate. One of the dramatic high points of Festen is the breakfast the following day where the father, the child abuser, says farewell to his children and grandchildren and says: “I know that this is the last time I will see you”.
The film is the result of Thomas Vinterberg’s free play with artistic rules in Dogme 95, and the Dogme concept becomes it. The loose, unrestrained camera style with wide angles and the actors’ freedom to push boundaries is masterfully steered by the director, making The Celebration one of Danish films’ greatest successes, both at home and abroad.