Wag the Dogma

Thomas Vinterberg makes cinematic waves with The Celebration.

Denmark was the first Scandinavian country to have a film industry, but--with the exception of the revered Carl Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet), whose career lasted from the middle silent era through the Sixties--the nation's filmmakers until recently functioned in the shadow of Swedish directors such as Mauritz Stiller, Ingmar Bergman, and Jan Troell.

Despite Denmark's diminutive size, its films have, over the last decade or so, begun to outshine those of its larger neighbor. After having never won a Best Foreign Film Oscar, Denmark won two years running with 1987's Babette's Feast and 1988's Pelle the Conqueror; more recently Lars von Trier's English-language Breaking the Waves achieved genuine mainstream crossover.

Von Trier has been the flashiest of the new generation of Danish directors, yet his connection with Thomas Vinterberg's film The Celebration is so self-effacing that it may be a practical joke.

Von Trier and Vinterberg are the founders of Dogme 95 ("Dogma 95" in English), a filmmakers' collective, and The Celebration is its first production. Dogme 95's principles--labeled "The Vow of Chastity"--are so arbitrary and so counter to the aesthetics of most of von Trier's work that it's hard to assess just how ironic the group's intent is. Among other things, Dogme 95 "opposes the auteur concept, makeup, illusions, and dramaturgical predictability." Shooting must be done on location, without fake props or sets; music can be used only if its source is contained within the actual scene; special lighting and postproduction optical effects are forbidden; temporal and geographical continuity must be maintained; genre films are forbidden; and the director must not be credited. Finally, the "vow" proclaims, "I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a 'work.'"

We are fortunate that, even in this initial offering from Dogme 95, the filmmakers are already breaking their own rules. Vinterberg has published a confession of his breaches--one instance of covering a window to change the lighting, another of helping to pay for the actors' clothing, plus a few other misdemeanors.

Despite the improbable nature of the rules and the impossibility of adhering to them strictly, The Celebration does reflect an aesthetic strategy that is compatible with the germ of Dogme's dogma. And the provocative nature of Vinterberg's first-rate film suggests that Dogme 95 shouldn't be regarded as a complete joke.

The story unfolds over the course of roughly twenty hours. Family and friends gather at the remote estate of wealthy Helge Klingenfeldt (Henning Moritzen) to celebrate his 60th birthday. Among the guests are Helge's two sons, who clearly seem to be cast as the Good Son and Bad Son. Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) is a whining failure without a single redeeming characteristic. He cheats on his wife; he insists on attending the party, although he knows he is unwelcome in his father's house; and he's such a lout that he throws his wife and children out of his car so he can drive his brother the last few hundred yards to the house. The Good Son is Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), who is welcomed by Helge with all the warmth that Michael is denied.

At least that's how it seems at first.
Both men get along with their sister, Helene (Paprika Steen), while all three are haunted by the memory of their other sister, Linda, Chris-tian's twin, who has committed suicide.

Helge's feelings toward his sons are quickly upset at the revelatory moment when the get-together turns ugly. During a toast Christian accuses his father of the most heinous sort of abuse. (As the party's genial, smiling master of ceremonies says after a similar moment later on, "My, it's quite a job trying to be toastmaster tonight!")

The evening devolves into a struggle between those in total denial and those who believe Christian's accusation but maintain a brave front; between the rich, nearly Nazi-like guests and the savvy servants, who, not surprisingly, have always known what was going on in the household.

To the extent that Vinterberg was interested in making a showpiece for the Dogme principles, he chose his material wisely. Although the action moves all around the house and its grounds, it's easy to imagine the work as a play, and the naturalistic techniques that Dogme embraces are particularly applicable to stage reality.

Most curious is the filming technique: The Celebration appears to have been made on some sort of digital video system; on fast pans, the image occasionally breaks up into huge blocky pixels. The choice presumably was made partly for budgetary reasons, but the here-and-now sensation of video is also appropriate to Vinterberg's intentions.

Despite its subject matter, The Celebration is, to a large extent, a comedy--a nasty, bitter one, to be sure, but a comedy nonetheless. It will hardly be everyone's cup of tea: In tone, this is no Babette's Feast, believe me. It's an acid-etched, take-no-prisoners allegory of bourgeois superficiality at its worst.

The Celebration.
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Written by Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov. Starring Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen, and Paprika Steen.