I am usually very careful not to praise or criticize a movie for its “realism.” That’s a film critics’ rookie mistake because realism is merely a style, no better or worse than any other stylistic approach.
This time, however, I will make an exception. The Celebration is a very good film because it is so realistic. Writing, acting, and cinematography mesh in this convincing family drama filled with realistic human beings.
Did You Notice?
Before I get too much further, let me say that I do recommend this Danish film. It deals with a palpably tense situation. It’s not pretty, but it is very good. I say this now because I was glad to be surprised by the movie, not knowing much about it beforehand. If you think you’ll see the movie, I recommend you do so without reading any further.
Okay, you’ve been warned.
The Celebration is about a big family reunion. From far and wide they come for father’s 60th birthday. The film is primarily concerned with three siblings. First there is Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), whose twin sister has just passed away. Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) is his brother, and he has brought his wife and kids to the reunion. Helene (Paprika Steen) is their sister, the emotional center of the siblings.
The movie opens on Christian walking along a road in the middle of nowhere. The road is so remote that Christian’s cell phone goes dead. Michael pulls up in a car with his wife and kids. The two brothers greet each other warmly after all these years, and Michael insists on giving Christian a ride. To make room, he makes his wife and kids get out of the car. The two brothers then zoom off down the road, leaving Michael’s screaming family to walk.
It turns out the two brothers weren’t very far from their destination, and Michael’s wife and kids come walking up the drive, pissed, but not late.
Vinterberg and Rukov set up the film’s tone beautifully with this teaser of an opening. First they show Michael’s family being left in the middle of nowhere, which at first seems darkly comic because it is so implausible. Then by showing us that the family wasn’t far from their destination, the writers changed the situation from farfetched black comedy to believable cruelty.
This is such a good opening because each surface idiosyncrasy ends up revealing another skeleton the collective family closet. Each time we delve deeper into a character, what started out seeming quirky and funny starts seeming more painful and dysfunctional.
The bottom of the spiral falls out when, during the toasts to father, Christian drops a bomb: his father molested both him and his dead sister when they were younger.
For some movies, that might be a climax. For this one, it is the setup. The rest of the film explores this family’s convincing, if frustrating, reaction. Most people choose to politely ignore or excuse the accusation. A few lash out at Christian for disrupting the peaceful gathering.
His mother tries to publicly humiliate Christian into apologizing. Michael wants Christian to tough it out, repress his memory, and let the family cope with its other problems. Helene knows Christian is telling the truth, but denies it to herself. Only two friends, a cook and Helene’s boyfriend, support Christian from the start.
What keeps the film moving is that Christian is persistent. Countless opportunities arise for him to drop his accusations, as the family tries to deny what they don’t want to know. But Christian is resolute. He needs to plead his case, to make sure he is heard out, and he refuses to give up until the family acknowledges the crime. It will be a long, bitter, painful evening, but Christian’s mental health, and the long-term health of the family, depends on getting it worked out.
As difficult as the film is to watch (at times), it is always engaging. That’s in part because the characters are written uncannily well. They feel like real people reacting to a real situation. The ensemble acting must also be credited for pulling off this amazing feat. Also, the film never devolves into sound bites or melodrama — it never feels exaggerated or sensationalized. In fact, the writing was apparently so important, that the director is not listed in the credits — only the writers. (Vinterberg actually directed.)
The cinematography of The Celebration was unusual, but appropriate. It was used in such a way to make the evening of the birthday party seem closer, more realistic. To achieve this look, the camera was often hand-held, but there were also some shots from high in a hallway that had the look of security camera footage. It’s a bit jarring at first, but when you sink into the story, you never notice.
There is also a certain spectator satisfaction in watching this film. We are made to empathize with Christian; he is clearly “the good guy.” But by bringing up his abuse at a polite reunion, he makes enemies with just about everyone in the family. Our sympathy for him is strong, and so it is frustrating to see him in such an uphill battle. And yet there are those who support Christian in the film, and when they act on his behalf, the feeling of righteous satisfaction is even stronger than the frustration. To draw a shallow but timely parallel, it’s like rooting for the underdog in a playoff game — every offense is a criminal injustice, and every inch gained is a matter for celebration.
After sitting through a draining 90 minutes of this, the film starts to wind down. Without blatantly giving away the ending, let me say that the film takes what seems like the only logical conclusion. Unfortunately, such a conclusion would ordinarily take weeks and months of emotional struggle. In this film, it takes one night. And in a film where the emotional realism was so important, it was mildly disappointing.
On the other hand, this film has so much going for it — writing, acting, emotional tension — it’s easy to excuse a few minor flaws. Look for this film on several “ten best” lists, including, probably, mine.