Tasha: The storytelling in Celebration sometimes seems ramshackle and erratic, lurching from scene to scene without a clear aim. In many films, that would be distracting or annoying, but here, it’s a conscious reflection of the protagonist’s nervous discomfort, and it’s a terrific tension-builder. Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) kicks off his father’s 60th-birthday party and family reunion by accusing his father Helge (Henning Moritzen) of serial child molestation, then privately apologizes and recants, then renews and ups his claims. He vacillates between hesitant and belligerent, and he drinks a prodigious amount of wine as he works his way up to fully committing to his claims. His hesitancy and backtracking indicate a deep internal divide, probably a hesitation to expose and embarrass himself after all these years of keeping a secret. But his conflict makes the story riveting, because it’s clear even he isn’t entirely sure what he’s going to do next.
I love how director Thomas Vinterberg and his co-writer, Mogens Rukov, set the film up: First they establish Christian as the “good” brother—the quiet one with the ritzy job in Paris—and his brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) as the selfish, loud-mouthed, alcoholic black sheep who was banned from the family reunion, but showed up anyway. The second that’s established, Vinterberg and Rukov flip it, making Christian the bad kid who’s disturbing the peace with his horrible child-rape claim, and giving Michael a reason (in the form of a promised admission to the Freemasons) to support the status quo and play alternating attack dog and lap dog for his dad. There’s a fantastic tension in that, too, as both brothers struggle with roles that run against the grain.
“To me, The Celebration is fundamentally concerned with processing the unprocessable...”
Nathan: The film’s handheld filmmaking and radically unadorned approach to visual style make the few instances of overt stylization much more effective and attention-grabbing by comparison. I am thinking specifically about Christian encountering someone precious from his past, late in the film. Where the rest of the film thrusts us into a complicated, often chaotic reality, the way this particular image is shot and framed lends it a dreamy, moody, faraway quality. It situates us firmly in the world of fantasy and dreams, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful or haunting if it didn’t represent such a dramatic break from the rest of the film’s visual vocabulary.
Noel: As much as those visual tics help tell the story, it still makes sense to me that The Celebration has been adapted into a well-regarded stage play, because it has such a solidly constructed script. The film implies a lot early on, before gradually filling in important details—Michael’s stint at boarding school, for example—right when the audience might be questioning some aspects of Christian’s accusation. Vinterberg and Rukov keep some of that ambiguity in play for a good long time, right up until the reading of the suicide note closes the book on Helge. It’s been so long since I first saw The Celebration that I can’t remember how I originally reacted to Christian’s first speech and its immediate aftermath. (I don’t think I knew exactly what he was going to say, only that it was going to be shocking.) But it’s a testament to how well-built this movie is that knowing what’s coming doesn’t make The Celebration any less tense on subsequent viewings. If anything, I think I was more anxious when Christian stood up for his first toast this viewing than I ever have been before—and this was the fourth time I’d seen the film.
Tasha: I can see Celebration making a terrific, natural stage play, since it has such a stagey structure: Everything takes place in a single location, in a hermetic environment, among a small handful of people. (This also makes it ideal for a small film.) And it has a stagey flow, too, akin to 12 Angry Men, with one holdout against unanimity gradually winning everyone over. That’s one of the other things that grabs me about Celebration’s story: The way it feels like an avalanche starting very slowly with a single rock falling, and gradually building and building until it reaches a tipping point where everything collapses.
Tasha: Celebration is a microcosm of how people deal with traumatic events, almost a textbook reading of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, happening in different individuals in different ways. There’s a lot of denial: The bulk of the family spends the whole film awkwardly pretending nothing is happening. And when Christian’s sister Helene (Paprika Steen) finds their sister’s suicide note, she breaks down, hides it, and clearly successfully forgets it, since she sends one of the staff to get her pills from the container where the note is hidden. There’s a lot of anger, particularly from Michael, who keeps expressing his confusion and lack of control with violence, first against Christian, then against their father. The bargaining comes from Christian’s parents: his father threatens to reveal similarly compromising things about Christian unless they can reach an agreement; his mother Else (Birthe Neumann) offers the easy out of “You’re just an imaginative kid, but this can all go away if you apologize.” Depression hits several people as the film goes on, but by the end, Helge, the father, has gone into such quiet acceptance that he lets Michael dismiss him from the table as though he were a child.
What breaks my heart about Celebration, though, is what Helge’s threats to Christian reveal about how Christian’s entire life was shaped by the trauma of repeated rape. As proof that Christian is an unworthy person, Helge cites his emotional illness as a child, his tendency to destroy other children’s toys, a long drugged-up stint in a sanatorium, his inability to commit to women, and his troubled relationship with his dead sister. Helge seems to think these are all failings of character on Christian’s part, but he’s describing classic responses to the trauma of rape. He’s literally blaming the victim. It’s clearly taken Christian his entire life to process his misery and self-hatred enough to use it to fuel direct action, instead of turning it inward.
Nathan: You’re dead on about the intense level of denial at play in the film’s early scenes. To me, The Celebration is fundamentally concerned with processing the unprocessable, with coming to terms with something so vast, horrifying, and unsettling that it has the power to rend the family’s entire world asunder. Accordingly, when Christian delivers his first damning accusation, it doesn’t take: The family dismisses him and his accusations, and later finds a way to re-contextualize his accusations by positing them as the delusional, paranoid fantasies of the mentally ill. Christian has to make these assertions over and over, and get support from his family (dead and alive) for them to finally break through the thick wall of denial the family has built up to protect itself. The family simply will not accept Christian’s brutal truth until they are ready, and that takes most of the film.
Noel: There’s something else going on here, too: This is a party, attended by friends and family with a long history together, which undoubtedly includes a long history of grinning and chuckling through some dirty old man or racist colleague spouting heinous bullshit. (How many family conversations over the past five years have begun with someone saying “Obama…” and someone else quickly trying to change the subject?) An accusation of child-rape is the kind of thing that’s hard to glaze over, but these people started day-drinking pretty early, and at a certain point, I’m sure the whole occasion becomes like a fog they’re just trying to push through, to get to a point where they can process it. One of the things I find most fascinating about The Celebration is how it depicts a social engagement as its own unstoppable beast, with participants committed to playing their parts long after those parts have ceased to be relevant to what’s actually happening. These partygoers are determined to weather any shit-storm.
Tasha: Sadly, Noel, that makes me rethink the ending of the film a bit. I saw it as a triumph for Christian, who’s now the quietly accepted one at the family table, with no one trying to shut him up or kick him out; instead, Michael politely but firmly asks Helge to leave. But maybe I should see it as the triumph of denial, instead. Maybe everyone at that table is just sitting with Christian in peace because he isn’t shouting at them or making them face unpleasant truths anymore, and they’re just as passively happy to ignore Helge’s abashed retreat as they were to ignore Christian’s outbursts. Anything to get along.
Matt: That’s an interesting reading, Tasha. I found the depths of the family’s denial almost as horrifying as Helge’s abuse of his children. Their dogged refusal to acknowledge the truth is most absurdly and brilliantly epitomized by the big conga line through the house. Keep your head down, follow the person in front of you, pretend like nothing is wrong, and bust a move!
Nathan: One of the many fascinating elements of The Celebration is the way it foregrounds issues of class and the divides and conflicts that inevitably ensue when one class is called upon to serve another, literally and metaphorically. The Celebration regularly calls attention to the line separating the haves and the have-nots, perhaps most dramatically in the scene where Michael condescendingly tries to send his sister’s black boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakinah) away, explaining that they don’t need any musicians. Michael simply cannot accept that a black man came to the celebration to celebrate, and not to serve. He clings to the notion that his family’s wealth and power give him a sense of superiority over the people around them, no matter how deplorably he behaves. He’s cruel and callous to the help. He abuses what little power he has in the same way his father abused the enormous power he had as the patriarch of his family and his business. Money, class, and power protect Helge throughout much of the film, but ultimately, it cannot and will not excuse everything, and Helge ends up playing a price for his arrogance.
Matt: Christian’s invitation to Pia (Trine Dyrholm), one of the waitresses at the party, to come live with him in Paris during the film’s final scenes feels like a pointed comment (maybe too pointed, frankly) about these same class divisions. Now that the family’s secret is out, its facade of upper-crust perfection can finally fall away, and the siblings are permitted to be who they really are. The way the family’s very formal attire gets more and more disheveled as the evening wears on is another nod in that direction as well.
“The way it feels like an avalanche starting very slowly with a single rock falling, and gradually building and building until it reaches a tipping point where everything collapses.”
Noel: Plus there’s the chef who knows the truth about Helge and goads Christian to follow through on what he started, then helps the cause by rallying the staff to hide the guests’ keys. And there’s the waitress who tries to get Michael alone so she can talk about their affair. It’s not just the friends and family who know each other too well. The staff has a long-term, none-too-healthy relationship with its employers. Michael’s pet waitress is also involved with the most conventionally comedic moment in The Celebration, when she pours water into Michael’s lap during service. That scene is like the movie in microcosm: Everyone near Michael (his wife, especially) knows the waitress doused him deliberately, but because the implications are so unpleasant, they all pretty much ignore it.
Nathan: The family and the employees of the hotel represent tribes that fracture over the course of the evening and the film, as it becomes apparent that the crucial distinction isn’t ultimately between the family and the staff, but rather between people who want the truth to come out, no matter how painful and difficult that truth may be, and the forces of corrupt authority, who have a vested interest in maintaining a more appealing fiction that gradually becomes completely unpalatable. That strong-willed chef acts as a catalyst who pushes Christian to follow through on his truth-telling after he loses his nerve and retracts his accusation. Though separated by class and social status, the chef and Christian are both invested in bringing an end to a decades-long charade.
Tasha: In the early going, the only thing that made the film tolerable for me was the way the chef—Kim (Bjarne Henriksen)—supports Christian. In just a few lines, he makes it clear that he will back Christian’s next play, but thinks that play should involve pressing onward: He stiffens Christian’s spine, not just by making it clear that the staff has Christian’s back, but by implying, just a little, that they’re waiting, watching, and judging him, knowing he’s kept this secret and planned this revelation for far too long already. Just knowing that there’s someone on his side makes the story more tolerable. But it’s also a clear, much-needed early implication that the abuse really did happen, and that the film isn’t about to attempt a last-minute sympathy-swap rug-pull by revealing that Christian is crazy, or vindictively making up his story. From that point, part of the pleasure of the story is watching how the hotel staff undermines Helge and props up Christian where they can. If anything, I wish there’d been more of that in the film.
Noel: The Celebration is a harrowing movie, yet it contains at least two moments that are laugh-out-loud funny—for me, anyway. When Christian gets chased out of the party for the first time, just when it looks like he’s about to leave peacefully, he tears ass back inside, looking like a Keystone Cop. And before that, when Christian gives his first speech, one of the guests starts to clap at the end, clearly having not paid a bit of attention to what was actually being said. There are comical characters who recur throughout the film too, such as the boorish sad-sack who constantly complains about the weather, and the poor toastmaster, who tries to follow the established rules of the occasion even as it’s slipping away from him.
Lars von Trier was one of the masterminds behind Dogme 95 with Vinterberg, and von Trier has a pretty sick sense of humor at times. And the Danish movie Klown (and the TV series that spawned it) takes the “comedy of awkwardness” that Ricky Gervais and Larry David helped pioneer and pushes it crazy-far. So perhaps this is a Danish thing. I wouldn’t call The Celebration a comedy by any means, but am I alone in thinking that it can be pretty hilarious?
Nathan: Definitely not. I laughed a lot during The Celebration. Within the context of the film, Christian is something like a Whack-A-Mole: Every time it appears he’s gone away for good, that the family has succeeded in silencing him and his unpleasant relegation, he pops right back up to cause trouble anew. These re-appearances—beginning with the one you described—begin to take on the quality of a running gag and a musical refrain. Here is my question for the group: if it weren’t for intermittent bursts of incredibly dark humor, do you think the film would be unbearably grim? Alternately, if the film didn’t embrace the comedy of awkwardness and discomfort, would it be unintentionally funny in parts? The Celebration has an admirably broad emotional palette, and acknowledging that there can be laughter even in the most painful moments is part of that.
Tasha: I think in a film this grim, it’s human nature to try to find humor anywhere possible—so yes, if there weren’t deliberate tension-breaking laughs, there might be desperate, unintended laughs instead. The humor, on the other hand, suggests that Vinterberg is willing to let his cast come across as a little human, and to give the audience enough of a break that they don’t recoil and shut out the most emotional elements of the film. I’m with you guys on finding a grim humor in Christian’s Energizer Bunny implacability in defiantly breaking back into the party hall over and over. But it isn’t just a gag, it’s also an illustration of how this kind of familial bad news works. The first few rumors can be dismissed, but eventually, the gossip just keeps coming back up, and can’t be quashed.
There’s a lot of that awful humor throughout the film: His mother gamely trying to compare an adult’s revelation of child molestation with the invisible-friend stories he used to tell when he was five. Or Michael abandoning his wife and children by the roadside in order to drive with Christian. Or the terrible moment when Helene’s mother cheerfully greets Gbatokai without any of the racism or abuse Michael just heaped on him—but then promptly mistakes him for Helene’s previous boyfriend, with the implication that she can’t tell black people apart. They’re all moments where the film pushes the discomfort to such absurdist levels that it’s clear Vinterberg is inviting viewers to laugh at the participants, not cringe in sympathy.
Matt: I’d actually like to wrap things up with a question about something that bothered my wife and I when we watched the film in preparation for this discussion. Why is Else allowed to remain at the family breakfast when Helge is asked to leave? According to Christian, she not only had knowledge of her husband’s actions, she actually walked in on the abuse and did nothing to stop it. Was anyone else surprised that the family so forgiving? My wife and I were both kind of alarmed by that. We thought it implied that in spite of their improved communication, they still have a long way to go.
Tasha: I think that moment is largely there to emphasize how thoroughly Helge has been ostracized; even his wife, who was so willing to lie and belittle and marginalize her own children to cover up his actions, no longer has his back. And she’s so cool and casual about throwing her husband under the bus, too! But it does seem like she’s getting off easy. That said, I’m not sure this illustrates that the family forgives her—as I said before, most of them seem to just want to keep the peace by ignoring any difficulty. And Michael is the one who turns Helge away while everyone else ignores him; I suspect Michael is just enjoying knowing he can finally publicly stand up to his father with the family’s blessing, but he wouldn’t get the same charge out of confronting his mother as well.
Noel: Yeah, that’s my reading too, Tasha: I think it’s mostly a matter of the kids seizing control, and now that the matriarch knows she can have her grandkids yanked away from her at any time, she’s going to be a heck of a lot more deferential. That’s why, as much of a monster as Helge is, one of the most crushing moments in the movie is when Michael tells him he’s no longer allowed to take his grandkids onto his knee. “Of course,” he says, completely deflated.
Nathan: I think the family can only process so much trauma at one time. Holding Helge accountable for his crimes after decades of willful ignorance tests the family to its breaking point. It’s literally the most they can bear to deal with—at least during one family function.
Our Movie Of The Week began yesterday with the Keynote essay on The Celebration’s cinematic austerity, and continues tomorrow with a look back at the legacy of the Dogme 95 movement.