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Chaste Scenes

[whitespace] Celebration

Danish 'Celebration' forgoes technical tricks

By Richard von Busack

DRIVEN TO LUTHERAN WRATH by the overly technical tactics of modern-day cinema, a group of Danish filmmakers calling themselves Dogma 95 have taken a "Vow of Chastity." They oppose "the auteur concept, makeup, illusions and dramaturgical predictability"; they propose to make films that dispense with as much artifice as possible. Forbidden are artificial lighting or music, props, cameras that need anything more than the human arm to support them, a story line that doesn't take place in the here and now, and subject matter that includes murder or weapons. The Dogma Group's vows sound like ice-cold austerity. But one of the Dogma members is Lars von Trier, who is noted (per his Breaking the Waves) for turning frosty climes into settings for hothouse drama. Likewise, The Celebration, the "chaste" experiment by director Thomas Vinterberg, is a satisfyingly lurid and often comic tale.

The Klingenfeldts gather at a fancy hotel in the Danish countryside during the middle of a heat wave. The occasion is the 60th birthday of the patriarch of the family, Helge (Henning Moritzen), a smooth, stern fellow with a plump face and a silver mane, like an old-fashioned Ohio senator. His family regards him with a mix of dread and contempt. The death of his daughter Linda, probably a suicide, overshadows the gathering. The party is being held in the very hotel where she took her life.

Angling for family favor is the no-good youngest son, Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), a trashy, ratty young man who likes to slap his women around. His brother, whom he dislikes heartily, is the eldest son and natural successor to Helge's businesses. Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) is noble-looking and even has the pursed, almost self-devouring mouth and blond mop of Olivier's Hamlet. Asked for a birthday toast, Christian prefers to air out some family skeletons. The question is whether Christian has made up the story with which he interrupts his father's 60th birthday party. Thus it's a waiting game to see if the rest of the guests, knowing of Christian's mental instability, will finally believe his incredible tale.

Vinterberg's video-camera techniques offer a satisfying exploration of how much can be done with very little. Blown up to 35mm, the grainy, smeary colors of the original video, shot on a Sony PC7, make the ghostly hauntings of the hotel look as real as the rest of the gathering. A wild enough story makes you begin to forget the limits of the new medium--and video technology does keep getting markedly better.

The Celebration is a near constant surprise. In a Scandinavian drama, you don't expect an old grandfather to stand up at a formal banquet and tell the joke about the man who was advised to stuff a potato into his Speedos. Nor do you expect the comic relief of the sort brought in by Paprika Steen, who plays Christian's surviving sister, Helene, a neurotic woman of easy morals on the verge of middle age. Helene tips a taxi driver as follows: "If you drive faster, I'll give you my phone number." The Celebration is a wild story with more similarity to Happiness than just the ironic title. This Danish import is a better movie than Happiness, though. Its story of ultimate parental misconduct provides more comedy, more sorrow, more compassion, more sense.

The Celebration (Unrated; 101 min.), directed and written by Thomas Vinterberg, photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle and starring Henning Moritzen and Thomas Bo Larsen.

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From the October 29-November 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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