Wednesday, January 6, 1999

The Celebration

Posted By on Wed, Jan 6, 1999 at 12:00 AM

One likes to think of the used car salesman as a uniquely American breed. But what about Denmark? Allow me to introduce Lars von Trier. And has he got a honey for you.

The controversial film collective, Dogme 95, was the result of a long weekend von Trier spent with Thomas Vinterberg, director of this film, and two other jokers, warming over cinema verité clichés into a set of rules they all agreed to play by in their productions. Von Trier test drove the model in Breaking the Waves, a two-hour exercise in tedious sea sickness, thanks to a woozy camera and insufferable characters chewing scenery.

The Celebration continues down the same road, albeit with tongue in cheek. We join a group of guests and siblings as they convene at a countryside manse-cum-lodge to toast the family patriarch on his 60th birthday. But before the first course is finished, the youngest son drops a bombshell revelation and everyone proceeds to make the worst of a bad situation.

Vinterberg shot this film using a Sony camcorder and then transferred the footage to 35mm stock. For the first half-hour, the wide-angle frames and the jittery camera moves deliver a kick of Brechtian alienation. As daylight gives way to night, the camera fights against its limitations, resulting in a weird graininess that perhaps is meant to mirror the collective psychic disintegration of the soiree.

But then again, so what? If there's an original idea on display here, it is cunningly hidden. What does keep one watching is the sheer energy of the cast, all veteran actors of Danish theater and film, who realize early on that the director has completely surrendered authority to them. The lunatics are running the asylum.

The result is a very bleak comedy that takes potshots, in no particular order, at the culture of victimhood, Danish collaboration with the Nazis, the grim Nordic temperament, self-righteous black Americans who don't speak Danish, and sundry bourgeois neuroses. It's all very over- the-top and uneven, flagging badly at times, while at others conjuring up a strange, trancelike mood -- especially after midnight when an impromptu dance party starts up and the film takes on a serious dimension of spirituality.

But most of the time, The Celebration showcases what happens when a director chooses to make rubes of the audience because he's unsure of himself. Lars von Trier can get away with this Dogme 95 nonsense because we've seen what he can do when he isn't handicapping himself. His Zentropa, for example, is nothing less than a splendid heresy against Dogme 95.

Vinterberg, on the other hand, is an unproven quality. One can only hope that he'll show us what he really has or doesn't have next time out.

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