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The Celebration (Festen) (1998)
The Celebration is
a powerful film about a highly dysfunctional family. It is well written in dramatic terms,
opening as family members and guests arrive at the family owned inn, proceeding with
scenes among various individuals in this menage as they approach the evening festivities,
the 60th birthday celebration of the patriarch. As the party goes on (alcohol content and
tempers both increasing to incendiary levels), ugly secrets spill out with growing
intensity, emotion, crisis, and violence. It is not a pretty picture.
Widely quoted to the effect that his limited budget was an advantage in tightening the film, director/screenwriter Thomas Vinterberg assaults the eye with an extremely nervous hand-held camera, episodes so underlit as to be unintelligible, extreme closeups, occasional slow motion, and an unappealing, grainy film stock in many scenes. When some viewers found jerky camera movement in Lars von Trier's wonderful 1996 film, Breaking the Waves, to be annoying, CV defended the technique, believing that there was artistic justification. Here Vinterberg overdoes it; it comes off as gimmickry, distracting from, rather than furthering the story or its meaning.
When Ingmar Bergman created introspective films about difficult family relationships - films like Cries and Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage - there was a level of wisdom in the intimate expositions that turned the pain into art. Vinterberg, while successfully holding his viewer's attention and moving his tale along with dispatch, doesn't here justify the unpleasantness with fresh insight. Without patronizing him, CV points out that he is not yet 30, so that his skill for cinematic storytelling may yield richer rewards in later, more mature work.
Vinterberg does elicit excellent performances from a large cast of characters. He also skillfully weaves the complex interactions among the characters so that the pieces of the puzzle fit neatly together. If the resolution seems to be somewhat too easy, too pat, chalk that up as another outcome of the depth missing in the conception.
The emotion best and most fully expressed on screen in The Celebration is anger. It is when we get beyond the anger that we begin to grow wise.
- Arthur Lazere