FESTEN - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(The Celebration)

Denmark, 1998

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Production: Nimbus Film in collaboration with DR/TV and Swedish TV; color, 35mm; running time: 106 min. Released 19 June 1998, in Copenhagen. Cost: DKK 8 mio.

Producer: Birgitte Hald; Screenplay: Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukow, from an idea by Thomas Vinterberg based on an authentic case made public on Danish Radio. Photography: Anthony Dod Mantle; Editor: Valdis Oskarsdottir.

Cast: Ulrich Thomsen ( Christian ); Thomas Bo Larsen ( Michael ); Henning Moritzen ( Father ); Paprika Steen ( Helene ); Birthe Neumann ( Mother ); Trine Dyrholm ( Pia ); Helle Dolleriis ( Mette ); Klaus Bondam ( Toastmaster ).

Awards: (Major awards only) Prix de jury, Cannes Film Festival; Danish Film Academy Award (Robert) for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Editor, Best Cinematographer, and Best Scriptwriter; Danish Film Critics Award (Bodil) for Best Director and Best Leading Actor; Fassbinder Award as European Discovery, European Film Academy Awards, 1998; Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Language Film; New York Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Language Film; Swedish Film Institute Award (Guldbagge) for Best Foreign Language Film.



Vinterberg, Thomas, and Mogens Rukow, Festen , København, 1998.


Interview and review, in Positif (Paris), no. 455, January 1999.

Macnab, Geoffrey, "The Big Tease," in Sight and Sound (London), February 1999.

Matthews, Peter, review in Sight and Sound (London), March 1999.

* * *

When Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Christian Levring signed the Dogma manifesto in 1995 their intention was to counter certain tendencies in contemporary cinema: cosmetic technical perfection, predictable dramaturgy, and superficial action. The various commandments of the Dogma manifesto, which might appear to be a straitjacket, were in fact conceived as a chance to concentrate the art of film on what matters most: the plot and the characters.

The Celebration , by Thomas Vinterberg, was the first Dogma film and from the very outset it was obvious that something extraordinary was afoot. The Celebration is a film born out of the happy moments when a director unites the combination of a good story and superb acting by every member of the cast into a film narrative which makes a tremendous impact with its palpitating editing, sensitively mobile camera, and striking sense of framing and composition.

The film is the story of a family party to celebrate a 60th birthday. It is attended by the birthday boy's three children, grandchildren, and sundry friends and relatives. When Christian, one of the three sons, starts his speech by thanking his father for raping him and his twin sister, who went on to commit suicide, the black comedy commences, with baroque farce alternating with excruciatingly painful revelations of stunted family relationships. Christian then tries to depart from the paralyzed company, who don't know whether it is a sickly inappropriate joke, but is persuaded by an old friend to stay and see his showdown to its conclusion. He returns to the dinner three times to maintain and elucidate his accusations, finally raising his glass to his father, "the man who murdered my sister."

Vinterberg moulds his story around the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action, and composes it in blocks: arrival, before the party, the party, and the next day, with the conflicts of the night as a climactic epilogue. The night is an hour of truth for the doubting brother Michael, who now denies his father, beats him up in impotent fury, and refuses to let him see his grandchildren. It is a story and a form which might have called for an almost classical stage performance or been made as a theatrically played-through film the way Fassbinder made some of his best films. But Thomas Vinterberg uses the Dogma hand-held camera rule—and lightweight video equipment— and in his pursuit of his characters learned more from Cassavetes than Fassbinder. Thus the camera pursues the characters beyond the limits of modesty, does not stop when things get painful, but pinpoints and penetrates to the very core of the pain threshold. At the same time it seems omnipresent, capable of capturing the most revealing reactions of the characters and their most secret expressions. Using extremes of motion from room to room it either follows the characters or proceeds in choreographed movements towards or across their moves, thereby generating dynamic rhythm and furious intensity.

Vinterberg, whose graduation in 1993 at the age of twenty-four made him the youngest student to emerge from the National Film School of Denmark, demonstrated in his graduation film a unique talent for the film medium, for moving narrative in moving images, a talent he also demonstrated in his short fiction masterpiece, Drengen der gik baglæns (The Boy who Walked Backwards) , about a boy who loses his brother and tries to come to terms with the pain. But in The Celebration , his second feature, he shows sharper teeth and a more mature bite in the tradition of realism in which Danish film is so rich.

At the same time the film is broad enough to avoid absolute villains and absolute victims, possessing the energy and humanity to form multifaceted characters, showing if not all, then at least a large number of their facets. Christian, who makes the speech, is not only a victim, but also a stunted, introverted man and cowed son, who tries to flee but then decides to stay and assume his role of embittered avenger, choosing with suicidal stubbornness to maintain his charges until it is no longer possible to reject them as a bad joke. When his dead sister's letter, read by his other sister, proves the ultimate trump card, we glimpse Christian's wan but triumphant smile of revenge. His brother, Michael, who has tried to stop Christian with all his might, and who is portrayed throughout the film as a lout, vicious in his racial prejudice towards his surviving sister's boyfriend—a racial prejudice which he gets the company to sing along to with disturbing ease—ends with the most bitter night of reckoning with his father.

The father, played by one of the most beloved personalities in Danish theatre, starts as the celebrated, successful patriarch, but ends as a rotten, worm-riddled apple nobody wants anything to do with. But his brief, dignified speech in which he acknowledges his guilt and asks for forgiveness allows him to assume some dignity in the moment of defeat. The film is an ensemble performance at the highest level, orchestrated with a virtuosity that means that the day of reckoning between father and son is reflected and faceted by the entire company, many of whom have their own little personal vignettes.

For good reason this film has aroused enthusiasm all over the world. The otherwise ominously well-worn incest theme is given a new lease on life by a film that casts its richly faceted light on a gallery of characters so human that we feel for and suffer with them.

—Dan Nissen

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