Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” arrives in the Cannes competition touting its adherence to the principals of Dogma 95, an artistic manifesto issued three years ago by Danish filmmakers including Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier. Seemingly a half-serious update of the French New Wave’s brash pronouncements, Dogma 95 urges location shooting, direct sound, hand-held camerawork and the avoidance of technical trickery. That it also states “the director must not be credited” didn’t stop Von Trier from inscribing his name screen-high in “Breaking the Waves,” however; nor does its condemnation of directorial personality prevent Vinterberg from bringing a quirkily idiosyncratic tone to “The Celebration,” a propulsively inventive but uneven family comedy-cum-melodrama. Though pic should score well in international fests and Euro sites, its prospects for wider arthouse success appear limited.
While Dogma 95 now looks mostly like a cheeky gimmick with a fast-expiring shelf life, it reflects an understandable desire to strip cinema of its ever-burgeoning capacity for fakery and illusion. In fact, it advances an aesthetic suited to the age of the camcorder, one that emphasizes characters, actual locations and technical simplicity. What it misses, though, is equally important: an idea of the dramatic content appropriate to the realistic style.
“The Celebration” takes the ultra-mobile, hand-held, transferred-to-video-and-back look of “Breaking the Waves” (though minus that film’s widescreen format) and at first plays it for manic, dark-edged comedy. As cars whizzing down the roads of rural Denmark converge on a handsome estate, it quickly becomes apparent that the family gathering about to commence won’t be all lighthearted revelry.
The celebrants are there to commemorate the 60th birthday of patriarch Helge (Henning Moritzen), whose three grown-up children evidence various sorts of problems. Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), a restaurateur based in France, still suffers from the recent suicide of his twin sister, a hurt he shares with his hedonistic surviving sister, Helene (Paprika Steen). Their younger brother, Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), meanwhile, has a wife, three kids and a lingering resentment over having been shut out of important family matters by his older siblings.
As these and other characters initially commingle in the grand house, their interactions are considerably spiced by the vivid, herky-jerky energies of Vinterberg’s style, with its fast cutting, darting camera movements and wide-angle visual contortions. When the tale grows more serious, however, the manner increasingly seems like a flashy overlay that’s more decorative than purposeful.
The dramatic turning point comes at the birthday banquet when Christian, having been asked by his father to say a few words about his departed twin, stands up and offers a toast that nails Helge for having sexually abused both twins as children. This declaration stuns the other guests, who try to make amends, but Christian won’t be placated; he repeatedly makes toasts that add damning details to his earlier charges.
Pic’s dramatic arc grows progressively less compelling as it dips into filmdom’s latest trendy formula, which replaces insight and nuance with Oprah-style indignation and whiny finger-pointing. (Incest and pedophilia seem to be the “shocking” revelations of choice at Cannes this year.) Ultimately, the story’s disappointing destination underscores that Dogma 95’s stylistic prescriptions have little to do with human truth, and can in fact be used to avoid it. Indeed, the more this film’s results are measured against its rhetoric, the more callow and unsatisfying it seems.
While Anthony Dod Mantle’s agile lensing and other tech contributions give “The Celebration” an appealing surface sheen, pic’s greatest asset is its expert ensemble. Standouts here include Larsen, whose Michael has comic edge and visceral presence; Moritzen, who brings a welcome dignity to Helge; and Thomsen, who’s a bit one-note but otherwise commanding as bitter, vengeful Christian.