Blu-ray Review: The Celebration

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Thomas Vinterberg | CAST: Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen, Birthe Neumann
RELEASE DATE: 1/11/22 | PRICE: Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: 2005 audio commentary by Vinterberg; new interview with Vinterberg; two early shorts by Vinterberg; The Purified, a 2002 documentary about Dogme 95; a segment in which Vinterberg discusses the real-life inspiration for the film; documentaries featuring the cast and crew; a 2003 documentary profile of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; deleted scenes
SPECS: NR | 105 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.33:1 monaural |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie   | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Lars von Trier may have received the most publicity for the Dogme 95 experiment in minimalist filmmaking, but the best film made by one of the core group of Dogme 95 filmmakers is Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998). The film has retained all of its emotional power, although the low-fi visuals are a fascinatingly odd subject for a 2K edition by the Criterion restoration experts.

The plot centers around a 60th birthday party held for a wealthy man (Henning Moritzen) at a country hotel he owns. The large group of relatives and friends are shocked when the eldest son, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), offers the first toast to his father – in the process revealing that he and his twin sister (who committed suicide) were habitually raped by their father. The partygoers try to ignore the accusation, but Christian is intent on offering details in subsequent toasts, and a letter written by the twin sister confirms his story.

Celebration would still have been a brilliant film if it had been shot in a conventional manner, but Vinterberg’s decision to strictly adhere to the ten rules in the Dogme 95 manifesto made it a quite curious item — a full-blown melodrama shot in an exceedingly minimalist, at time blatantly unattractive, style.

The result is a film that focuses intently on the actors, allowing them to give excellent performances, while Vinterberg and his crew — most especially a go-to d.p. for experimental visuals in arthouse cinema, Anthony Dod Mantle — devised some beautiful imagery to appear amidst the often-unsteady camerawork and bleary color created by the video camera used on the shoot.

This dichotomy — fevered dramatics and an intentionally primitive visual style — made the best Dogme films into singularly fascinating creations. The “vow of chastity” that was the Dogme 95 manifesto (primarily drafted by von Trier and Vinterberg, and present as the cover “art” for this Criterion release) demanded a number of austere rules, among them: features must be shot only on location, with natural light and a handheld camera. Audio overdubs are forbidden (as is optical work and filters), and only diegetic music can be heard. Genre plots are to be avoided, and the director must be uncredited.

Conceived to counter the excesses of 1990s Hollywood (and to seemingly go the master-minimalist Robert Bresson one better in terms of low-key, ascetic filmmaking), Dogme 95 was intended to make filmmakers figure out ways to work within, and around, the ten rules. The supplements here delve at length into Vinterberg’s methods, but they only briefly touch on how expertly he used these limitations to highlight the simmering tensions in his screenplay (cowritten with Dogme icon Mogens Rukov) and to underscore the creepiness of a lot of the sequences.

The supernatural moments (in which the dead sister’s presence is felt, and she briefly appears to her relatives) are more suspenseful because of the handheld camerawork and the intimate nature of the shots. One sequence where we quickly learn just how tribal and downright nasty the rich party guests are has them zestfully singing a racist song in Danish to insult a black attendee (who only understands English) who is dating Christian’s other sister. It’s the moment where any doubts the viewer might have about Christian’s revelation disappear. These are indeed some elegant-looking but evil people.

Forty-five minutes of outtakes are included in the package. The most significant items in this compilation are additional supernatural scenes (including other appearances by the dead sister) and a threesome sequence involving Christian and two female friends who are working at the party. Oddest of all is an out-of-place (thus its deletion) broader comedy moment where two characters recreate a scene from von Trier’s popular TV miniseries The Kingdom.

Henning Moritzen in The Celebration

In a fascinating but brief video segment Vinterberg outlines the real story at the heart of Celebration. He discusses a radio broadcast in which a man gave an accusatory speech at his father’s birthday party that was identical to the one in the film. He later met the man as he was dying — and then discovered that there was no sister who committed suicide, and in fact such events never happened to the gentleman. (With one further twist, not to be revealed here.)

Two early shorts by Vinterberg reveal that he was indeed disposed to melodramatic fare from the start, and had a flair for the emotional. Both films revolve around a character dealing with death — in the first it’s a young man diagnosed with cancer who wants to say goodbye to his friends in high style; in the second it’s a boy who creates OCD rituals for himself after his older brother dies in an accident. Both of the characters suppress their grief, which make the films more emotionally involving — a skill he would put to good use in Celebration.

A new interview with Vinterberg conducted for this package is quite enlightening, as it finds the filmmaker discussing at some length the downward creative spiral he underwent after Celebration became a worldwide hit — a spiral predicted by his hero, Ingmar Bergman, who chided him for not having another film ready to go as Celebration neared its premiere. “I guess I destroyed my career,” he comments at one point, as he discusses the films that came after his arthouse hit, and then chronicles how he finally achieved a rebirth of sorts (with the 2011 film Submarino).

A 1998 television documentary on the film begins with Vinterberg winning the Jury Prize at Cannes and proceeds to interviews conducted at the Danish premiere of the film. The filmmaker goes into how both The Godfather and Fanny and Alexander inspired Celebration, and the actors note how much they enjoyed shooting in the Dogme style, as it meant they could play longer scenes for the camera, with fewer set-ups.

A 2005 look back at the film finds Vinterberg and key cast and crew recounting their memories of the shoot. The best part comes with a series of “revelations” by different parties as to ways in which Dogme rules were broken: an actor was lent a tuxedo (actors in Dogme productions are supposed to supply their own costumes); cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle did a terrific trick shot with the camera strapped to a microphone pole at one point; and (horror of horrors!) Vinterberg and Mantle used tea towels to blacken out windows in the mansion, in order to film a nighttime scene during the day.

Mantle provides his opinions on filmmaking in the 2003 short film “ADM:DOP.” The short leaves one wanting more, although it is intriguing to hear that Mantle’s primary aim as a d.p. is set up a visual frame for the images and then let that frame “disappear.” His advice for young camera people? “Keep your personality in your work.”

The best inclusion in the package is Jesper Jargils’s feature-length 2003 doc The Purified about a “summing-up” meeting held by the four key Dogme directors (von Trier, Vinterberg, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring). At this “watch party” the quartet view the films they made under the Dogme rules, plus behind-the-scenes footage shot by Jargil and comments on the manifesto by scripter Mogens Rukov, who cowrote three of the four films.

The filmmakers clearly took the rules seriously, and they engage in an ongoing discussion about whether the whole phenomenon was making a political statement or was instead a more personal experience for each of them. They also clearly enjoy busting each other’s chops as they act as “Dogme policemen” and spot ways in which their colleagues cheated on certain rules from the vow of chastity.

Buy or Rent The Celebration

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”