Could the manuscript for The Celebration have been realised outside the framework of Dogma 95? Undoubtedly. Would that have made it as good a movie? Most likely not.
The secret behind the success of The Celebration lies in the linking of a classic family drama with the handheld aesthetics dictated by Dogma 95. The story of a son's revolt against his father might as well in principle have been a tragedy by Shakespeare, a modern play by Lars Norén, or for that matter yet another of the cosmetic Hollywood productions against which the Dogma manifesto was directed. But Thomas Vinterberg tells his story in a documentary style, thus combining the strength of two genres otherwise kept strictly apart: the power of identification and the effective curves of suspense characteristic of fiction, and the reality effect of documentarism, i.e. the feeling of being present here-and-now in a space which is not staged or directed, and where anything can happen.
Watching The Celebration is, to put it directly, like participating in the "celebrations" yourself. You are present at the dinner table when Christian stands up, strikes his glass, and gives the shocking birthday speech to his father, Helge. You are the innocent bystander during the whole of this thrilling power struggle, where Helge uses almost every means to make Christian shut up before finally having to admit that the battle is lost. The embarrassing episodes and the absurd atmosphere in which the toastmaster of the party, against all odds, is trying to keep up appearances and keep a stiff upper lip, spreads to the audience making the watching of the movie both teasingly unpredictable and crushingly claustrophobic. It is a voyeurism that makes you yourself feel exposed.
This effect is especially reached through the camera work by Anthony Dod Mantle. The shaky DV-pictures out of focus simulate a truly amateur home video, but sometimes the camera also turns into an objective though somewhat mysterious surveillance camera. By and by, as we become involved in Christian's struggle for truth, the inquisitive camera also achieves an element of journalistic investigation or detective-like scrutiny. The camera finds its way behind the jovial facade and into the far corners to expose the horrible truth at the heart of the family: incest. Thus the camera and Vinterberg! cannot be accused of violating the privacy of the family or indecently exposing them, driven by mere lust for sensation. We have entered private property, that's true, but the camera is working in the service of truth. And although the exposure of Helge's crimes does not lead to legal proceedings in the traditional sense, it is both morally and psychologically necessary. Christian and the other members of the family can only be released from the demons of the past if the truth is brought to light.
In other words, Thomas Vinterberg transforms the technical limitations of Dogma 95 into new narrative possibilities with The Celebration. And it is not just a question of old wine in new bottles. The improvised way of recording and the minimal aesthetics create not only a "documentary" intensity, but actively interfere with the drama, influence our perception of the action, and produce meaning. But how is this actually achieved? How does the interaction between a classic drama and the aesthetics of Dogma manifest itself? In which places do the Dogma rules present a boost to the story, and where are they instead a straitjacket? Which of the ideas in the manuscript was Vinterberg unable to realise in a satisfying manner, or obliged to drop completely?
As mentioned above, the manuscript could easily have been realised in a classic movie format. There is nothing "avantgardistic" in the story, which to some degree apparently is based on a true case, and to some degree draws its inspiration from Hamlet. The fashionable manor presents a miniature society, a small kingdom with a cold and brutal king (Helge) as the ruler, his opportunistic queen (Else), their rebellious son (Christian), and the wild, but good-hearted daughter (Helene), henchmen and aspirants to the throne (the toastmaster Helmuth von Sachs and Michael, the youngest son), a decadent bourgeoisie (the guests), and a hard-working proletariat (the staff).
Christian and Helge are respectively the hero and the villain in a long and tough psychological power struggle, a true tug-of-war, in which each party has his allies and uses cunning tricks, and in which Helene turns out to be the decisive factor, when she spurred on by the racist behaviour of both Michael and the rest of the participants towards her black boyfriend sides with Christian and reads out loud the goodbye letter of the deceased sister: the final evidence against Helge.
Nor is there anything "avantgardistic" in the narrative structure of the movie, in spite of the unambiguous Dogma revolt against classic dramaturgy: "Predictability (dramaturgy) has become the golden calf around which we dance." But this critique has not manifested itself in a concrete commandment in the Vow of Chastity, and The Celebration is quite conventionally divided into four dramaturgical phases: Presentation (the arrival, Helgeís welcome speech, the hors díoeuvre, and Christianís speech), Complication (Heleneís speech, Else's speech, the abduction of Christian), Confrontation (Lindaís suicide letter, Michaelís assault), and Resolution (Helgeís goodbye speech).
As in all classic dramas, the movie keeps the unity of time, space, and action, as we follow the normal scheme of a family celebration, from the arrival of the guests to the common breakfast table the morning after. The established set up is characterized by jovial entertainment and all too hectic teasing, but also a certain tenseness up to the first turning point, where Christian drops the bomb in his so-called speech of truth. The rest of the movie is a thrilling, ingenious, and at certain points, hilariously absurd battle between Helge, who does his best to cover up everything, and Christian, who stubbornly hangs on and time and again spoils "the good mood".
The conflict really tightens when Christian interrupts his motherís speech, accuses the whole group in a very harsh manner, and is removed as an unwanted misfit by his younger brother Michael and a couple of guests. The second turning point of the movie is Heleneís reading of Lindaís suicide letter (the central prop of the drama), which has already been introduced in the set up and which now clears the way for the resolution of the conflict: Helge admits to having raped his twins, Christian and Linda.
A final moment of suspension is Michaelís desperate, nocturnal assault on the fallen king and humiliated father, but Christian turns up as his fatherís saviour in a classic, but understated last minute rescue. Even the worst of criminals has the right to a minimum of dignity, and Helge, who opened up the celebration with a half-sung welcome speech, is able to close the celebration (and the movie) the morning after with a serene and emotional goodbye speech. The masks have dropped, the truth has been revealed, and the father leaves the stage to we have to presume take his own life.
The contrast between the sequences
The sophisticated thing about The Celebration is the parallel relating of the unusual story and a "natural story" , recognisable to most of us: the ritual of the family celebration. We know the obligatory speeches, the funny remarks, and the slow running conversation with the woman next to us, the grandfather who no longer remembers anything, and the uncle who drinks too much and is eyeing all the young girls with bad intent. We know the predictable progression with coffee, brandy, and sleepy dancing cheek-to-cheek far into the night.
But in Thomas Vinterbergís movie, this is turned into a fascinating game of following and breaking rules. The rituals are seriously put to the test, just as the strict rules of Dogma 95 are put to the test in The Celebration. Is Christian able to convince the guests of the truth within the narrow framework of a family celebration, and is Vinterberg able to seduce the public within the narrow aesthetics of Dogma?
Form and content, Dogma concept, and Vinterbergís story all reflect each other. And when Thomas Vinterberg succeeds in this project, it is to a very large degree due to his sense of contrasts which take us by surprise. Not only the contrast between great tragedy and "primitive" Dogma aesthetics, but also the contrast between seriousness and comedy. Where an Ingmar Bergman undoubtedly would have taken the tragedy to its full and final extent, Vinterberg treats the delicate taboo subjects with warmth, humour, and a youthful energy. Although his short movies Last Round (1993), and The Boy Who Walked Backwards (1994) deal with a young man sick with cancer, and a boy who loses his older brother, both movies are nonetheless very optimistic. And when Ulrich Thomsen (Christian) with a classic silent movie gesticulation runs away from his fatherís assistants, he is more reminiscent of a wild Chaplin hobo, who has just kicked a policemanís butt, than of a traumatised victim of incest, for whom we ought to feel sorry.
Finally, the contrast between the individual sequences plays an important role. In the post scriptum to the manuscript, the director and Mogens Rukov write:
We gave ourselves the task that every step should fill out one sequence. And that each sequence should be of its own kind. They should have each their own mood, special rhythm, specific form, focusing on particular places in the reality, in which we were interested. [...]
We rely on this kind of break between sequences not as one might expect to halt the progression, but rather to make it dynamic.
Once again, the coup is the parallel progression of the unusual story and the natural story. Every change in mood, rhythm, and aesthetics, is related to a new phase in the ritual celebration, which thus works as a structuring principle for the story and ensures that a break is never left hanging in the air as a made up plot-device.
When the children and the guests in the beginning arrive at the manor accompanied by a jumpy camera and an abrupt cutting, the mood quite naturally turns ecstatic, as a reunion after a long absence often does. And when the guests in the following sequence are given their rooms and rest before the rigours of the evening, it is just as natural for Vinterberg to turn down the pace, going deeper into the characters, and slowly getting closer to the family trauma which like a bomb is slowly ticking under the harmonious and conventional surface.
Freedom and restraints of Dogma
The "checking in" is the most advanced sequence of the movie. Here Vinterberg contrasts mute horror, shock, and hilarious comedy, here he cuts between three lines of narration (Christian/Pia, Michael/Mette, and Helene/the reception clerk) in a relatively brilliant montage, pressing the Dogma rules to their limit in order to build up an occult, spooky feeling.
In this sequence, the Dogma 95 shows both its strength and its limitation. The strength is shown in the argument about shoes between Michael and Mette, where the flexible, handheld camera creates intimacy while at the same time allowing the actors to improvise without having to think about the position of the camera and chalk marks on the floor. This is where the inspiration from the deceased American independent director John Cassavetes becomes evident: the technology has to adapt itself to the acting, not the other way round, and the director has to seize the small miracles of the moment, as for example when Thomas Bo Larsen (Michael) intuitively drinks a glass of water before "running wild" on his wife.
The limitation of Dogma 95 can be seen in the ghost scene. Originally, the ghost of Christianís dead twin sister should have walked through the movie from her placing the goodbye letter in the beginning to the final goodbye to Christian in the last scene but this idea had to be abandoned. What is left of this idea is the scene in which Christian dreams, and the mysterious surveillance camera, which now and again documents the action in an extreme birdís eye perspective. The camera really makes itself present when it focuses on Helene and the reception clerk, as they enter Lindaís old room in the hotel. Does the camera represent the deceased Linda, following the drama from the other side? Does she, just like Laura Palmer in the thematically related Twin Peaks, refuse to let go of the living, until justice is done?
Probably. Because there is also something spooky going on in the bathroom in Lindaís room, where the camera in a mute setting quite obviously acts as the spirit of the dead one behind a flickering curtain in slow motion (a horror effect repeated later in the movie). This is on the verge of the Vow of Chastity and shows the limitations of the Dogma aesthetics, when acting and lines cannot do all the work, and the director is in need of a change of the realistic movie picture into a mental one. Dogma 95 and the DV camera can produce outstanding acting and an authentic feeling of here-and-now, while the horror movie strives to make our everyday categories of time and space unstable, and thus depends on suggestive camera movements, expressive sound effects, background music, lights, a range of blood-red colours...
In other words, there are limits to the Dogma 95. But possibilities as well. And when Thomas Vinterberg sticks to the basic family drama, it is hard to imagine any Hollywood production capable of doing this better.
Translated by Orla Vigsø
Breum, Trine. Film, fortælling og forførelse. Randers: Frydenlund 1993.
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Jerslev, Anne. "Adrenalin Rush Hour", Ekko vol. 1, no. 2, May 2000.
Rukov, Mogens. "Filmens sunde grænser", Politiken 25. marts 1995.
Schepelern, Peter. "Filmen ifølge Dogme. Spilleregler, forhindringer og befrielser". Film vol. 10, no. 1, Spring 1999.
Vinterberg, Thomas and Lars von Trier. Dogma 95, March 1995.
Vinterberg, Thomas. Festen. Viborg: Forlaget Per Kofod ApS, 1998.
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1 In the radio programme Koplevs krydsfelt, DR P1, 28 March 1996, a young man told about his stepfatherís sexual abuse and about the speech of truth, he himself gave at the celebration of the 60th birthday. But the anonymous radio guest has never made himself public, and the story might very well be more or less fictional. See my article "Festen der forsvandt", Weekendavisen, 5-11 May 2000.
2 Closest is the rule number 5: "The film must not contain superficial action", and rule number 8: "Genre movies are not acceptable".
3 Cf. Thomas Vinterberg and his co-writer Mogens Rukov in their post scriptum to the manuscript, "Om at skrive og forandre", in: Festen, Forlaget Per Kofoed Aps 1998. The notion of "natural story" is developed by Mogens Rukov, who is the daily head of the manuscript department of the Danish Film School.
4 Festen, op.cit., p. 149.
5 Søren Kragh-Jacobsen also had problems with his imaginative UFO sub-plot in Mifunes Last Song, Dogma 3.
6 The DV camera is, strictly speaking, a breach of the Dogma manifesto, as rule number 8 dictates the use of Academy 35mm as a format. For economic reasons, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier were forced to record their movies on video.
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