Z To A: The Celebration (1998)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Helge Klingenfeldt (Henning Moritzen) is a respected Danish patriarch whose country estate is the scene of a grand celebration.  Friends and relatives have arrived.  The staff has prepared the most succulent foods to be served with the finest wines.  Even Helge’s squabbling adult children seem to be on their best behavior: free-spirited Helene (Paprika Steen), hot blooded Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) and sensitive Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), whose birthday toast turns the genteel celebration into a surprise party from hell.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

The Celebration is the kind of film that people might not be able to finish simply because of the way it looks.  It was shot with a Sony Handicam on Mini-DV cassettes before being blown up on 35 mm film, giving it a gritty, DIY look that some viewers might find disorienting, ugly and uncomfortably intimate.

In reality the film was an experiment, the first entry of the Dogme 95 movement created by Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier.  The making of this kind of film is inhibited by ten rules referred to as a “Vow Of Chastity,” and Vinterberg was the first to take the plunge.

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Since then there have been 35 films associated with the movement, but Vinterberg’s stands apart because of its aesthetic and story.  Personally I consider The Celebration my favorite revenge film, although in this case revenge has nothing to do with violence, malice or retribution.  What most would consider “ruining the party” or “angering his family” is a man exposing truth and personal pain no one wants to listen to, insisting they accept it.

A few years ago I sat in on a sexual abuse survivor’s group and spoke about what happens in The Celebration.  To say the least, victims of rape and assault understand Christian’s impulses here because being ignored, told to shut up or threatened isn’t only something that happens to them on a domestic level, but many facets of their lives.  Everyone in that room had experienced what Christian goes through in one way or another, struggling with a way to deal with it and move on.

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Christian stands up to make a speech for his father’s birthday, giving him a choice between one marked “yellow” and “green.”  Little do the guests know that Christian is going to publicly confront him for repeatedly raping and abusing him as well as his recently deceased twin sister, Linda.  Earlier on it has been established that Linda has killed herself in the estate everyone is staying in, and what’s more, in the bathtub of an occupied room.

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In short: hardly anyone is up for really recognizing how serious this is.

A large part of The Celebration consists of various family members and partygoers trying to bully, suppress and ignore Christian, who won’t stay silent and sticks to his story.  No matter what happens he insistently comes back, raises a glass and reiterates what his father did.  Publicly.  

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His father threatens him in private, but Christian remains unmoved.  He is removed from the party and locked out of the estate; he finds a way back in, walks into the dining room, picks up his glass and continues.  When his mother chides him in her own speech, asking him to admit he’s lying and apologize, he implicates her for walking in on a rape and leaving him there.

After this the party devolves into chaos.  Christian is thrown out once more by fellow partygoers and his hot-headed brother, Michael, who drags him into the woods, beats him then ties him to a tree.  “In the woods!” he orders.  “This must fucking stop.”

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This is the kind of stuff people wouldn’t want to be present during, let alone watch.  However, the dynamics of what’s happening are as frustrating as they are interesting.  Who is the real bad guy here?  Is it Christian, disrupting what is supposed to be a joyous occasion?  Is it his father, who raped and abused his children for years and denies it?  What about his mother, who obviously knew what was going on but didn’t do anything?  Is it Michael, who keeps insulting and assaulting nearly everyone who crosses his path?  Is it the partygoers, who stubbornly keep up appearances and act like oblivious sheep throughout the whole thing?

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In a way all of these people are guilty of causing pain, and as a result the film has to turn everything upside down before finding a new equilibrium.  It turns out that Christian is confronting his father on his own, but not without help.  His childhood friend, Kim (Bjarne Henriksen) is the head chef of the estate and insists Christian goes through with it.  When things go downhill he plots to keep all of the guests from leaving, sending two servers, Pia (Trine Dyrholm) and Michelle (Therese Glahn) to pilfer their keys and hide them in the oven.  (As a side note: holy shit I love Kim so damn much.)

Christian finds support in other places as well, whether it’s through Pia, his sister Helene or her American boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah), who has arrives late to the party and is meeting the family for the first time.  In spite of hardly understanding the language and being an outsider himself (the dinner party sings a racist song at him because he’s black) he knows what’s happening isn’t right.  “To your brother,” he says, raising his glass to Christian while a furious Michael stares him down.  “You want a speech?  I just saw how you do it.  Don’t tempt me.”

Helene’s involvement is key.  Like many families where incest happens, some children are abused while others are not.  Helene is exemplary as someone caught in the middle and trying not to lose her mind.  She is forced to process everything so quickly- from finding her sister’s suicide note to Christian’s speeches to the racism and fights breaking out left and right.  At one point she has to walk away and have a breakdown in her room because she can hardly think straight, let alone decide the right thing to do.

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But this is what’s great: although it’s difficult, Helene does choose the right thing to do.  She reads Linda’s suicide note instead of giving her speech, confirming everything Christian has said as true.  The dining room finally falls silent.  Their mother is no longer smiling.  Their father can no longer pretend.

“Pass the port to my daughter so I can drink a toast with her,” he keeps saying.  “Pass the port…”  Suddenly he slams his fists on the table and starts yelling at everyone, demanding their respect.  “What are you staring at?” he shouts.

Helene has turned still as stone, realizing who he really is, then Christian confronts him one last time:

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(Remember how I asked who the bad guy is here?  Spoiler: it’s totally the father.  Okay, just wanted to make things clear.  Moving on.)

I have previously mentioned that I enjoy films where high-class celebrations go awry (CeremonyRachel Getting Married, Melancholia).  Although some viewers and critics view The Celebration as farcical, I’ve never seen it that way.  Christian forces his father to admit his actions and suffer the consequences, but getting to that point isn’t easy or fun.  What counts is how it draws him closer to Pia, Helene, Gbatokai and a new sense of self and possibility.  He is also able to let Linda go when she appears to him in a dream and they embrace before separating.

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The final scene of the film seems open-ended.  Christian watches his father get ejected from a breakfast the following morning but it’s hard to tell what he’s feeling at the moment.  Is it relief?  Sorrow?  Compassion?  Indifference?  The sounds of the surrounding conversations grow louder around him, drowning out whatever thoughts he’s having.  Life has returned to normal too quickly and it becomes one of those “not so fast” moments where you realize that although it’s over, it isn’t.  Christian will have to continue dealing with his burden on his own.  Many of the others will forget.

Since the film’s release the screenplay has been adapted as a play and performed in 15 languages.  The first premiered in London and has received more notice over the years because of its cast.  Jonny Lee Miller played Christian, while a little-known actor named Tom Hardy played the volatile Michael.  Just the idea of this makes me feel like I missed something spectacular, but that’s the nature of theater.  You either see it or you don’t, and either way, there was an ocean separating me from going.

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What I would have given to be there.
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