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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
The Celebration (1998)
4 Stars

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Cast: Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen, Birthe Neumann, Trine Dyrholm, Helle Dolleris, Gbatokai Dakinah, Therese Glahn, Klaus Bondam, John Boas, Erna Boas.
1998 – 101 minutes - Danish with English subtitles
Rated: Rated R (for violence, profanity, sex, and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 10, 1998.

The characters in the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg's remarkable film, "The Celebration," are so full of hate, resentment, and unhappiness, that it sometimes grew nearly unbearable to watch them anymore. And yet, the film is such an emotional powerhouse without going for cheap dramatics that I couldn't turn my back on it.

"The Celebration," is set during a 24-hour period, in which an extended family has gathered at a country estate to celebrate the 60th-birthday of the family patriarch, Helge (Henning Moritzen). Right from the very first scene, in which, on his way to the party, Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) spots his older brother, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), travelling by foot, and subsequently throws his own wife and three children out of the car, we get a taste of how dysfunctional this family is. Early on, we also meet Helene (Paprika Steen), Michael and Christian's sister, and Pia (Trine Dyrholm), who has loved Christian ever since chilhood, but has not been able to connect with him since his twin sister committed suicide two months ago. All of these characters and story threads finally come together at the actual birthday celebration that night, in which everything begins to unravel and fall apart when Christian, giving a speech at dinner, unexpectedly reveals some brutal hidden secrets that he has kept bottled up for years about his father, Helge.

"The Celebration," is the first film to be released under Dogme 95, a Danish film agreement established in Copenhagen, which requires the director to make the film with a hand-held camera using natural light, and without any sort of special-effects or music score. The purpose is to give the Dogme 95 films a realism and aspect of spontaneity that could not be captured otherwise. Considering this, "The Celebration," is an interesting first experiment, but also an, overall, exceptional motion picture that, truth be told, gives off an air of instinctivity and nauralism that has never been caught in a fictional film before.

Aside from this truly unique aspect, "The Celebration," is a brutal, unbelievably stark motion picture about family wounds and secrets. It would be criminal to spoil the surprises within, but once Christian reveals his past to the whole family, I was in a state of shock and dread throughout the rest of the film. Prior to this fateful moment, I had pretty much decided what I thought of all of the characters---I liked Christian and Helge, but found Michael to be a despicable, abusive human being---but once that turning point came, the film forced me to question and judge the family again, as individuals and as a whole. And even as more and more striking plot developments occurred, I had a difficult time deciphering the good from the bad, and the truth from what could very well be dirty, unforgivable lies.

The actors, most of which appeared in Vinterberg's first, and lesser known film, "The Greatest Heroes," are all meticulous and unforgettable, from Ulrich Thomsen, as Christian, who feels it is time to get his miserable childhood out in the open, to Thomas Bo Larsen as the edgy Michael, to Paprika Steen, as Helene, who turns out to be hiding secrets of her own. Henning Moritzen was perfect as the father, Helge, who drifts throughout the film as being both touching and helpless, even though we sense he is capable of some very terrible things. Also making an impact is Gbatokai Dakinah, as Helene's black boyfriend who shows up unnanouced at the party, much to the disgrace of the rest of the family. The camerawork and cinematography by Birgitte Hald, as in the Dogme rules, was done with a hand-held camera, which was a smart choice, since the shaky, unsettling movements reflect the family's gradually crumbling relationship in the film. The picture was also filmed in drab, yellow-brownish colors which also telegraphed the idea of a family off-balance.

Watching the picture, it felt more like a cerebral experience, than a normal film. In a decidedly weak year for movies, "The Celebration," is certainly one of the year's very best. It made me feel things deep inside myself, which caught me by an even greater surprise, when compared to the trivialities of most of the films being made in today's times. There was never a false moment to be had; not with the characters, or the writing, which is superb, or with the deep truths of the story. When, "The Celebration," ended, it left me with conflicting emotions about what had gone on between the family. On the one hand, I had the suspicion that maybe the family would be able to work things out, but that was only my own ideal thoughts. In actuality, I knew that when one person simply told the other, "you can go now," that was the definitive end to the family, and yet, the start of happiness and relief from some of the characters. Funny, how a harmless get-together between loved-ones can start out as a rejoicing of togetherness, and end as a rejoicing of separation between those who now hate each other.

©1998 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman