The Celebration and the Dogma
Art has many subcategories: movies, paintings, theater, sculpture and the like. Within each subcategory, there are subcategories. In film, for example, there is horror, comedy, drama, and science fiction. Yet, another classification is based not on content, but rather on stylistic elements. These stylistic elements can define a director, such as Hitchcock’s suspense thrillers, or do just the reverse: remove the director from the picture itself. Such is the case for the Dogma rules: using “natural light, no optical filters, superficial action, geographic alienation, or signature” to produce interesting movies (1). One film that enlists these criteria is the Danish film, The Celebration.
The Celebration tells the story of a family reunion held to commemorate a father’s 60th birthday. The camera, traveling bumpily along a farming road, focuses on Christian, one of four siblings traveling to his father’s (Helge’s) house. Christian’s brother, Michael, driving by, stops, gives Christian a ride, while forcing his own wife and children to walk the rest of the distance. The viewer soon learns of Christian’s twin sister’s (Linda) suicide and sees the stress from to such an event through each character’s emotions and reactions. Christian’s younger sister, Helene, finds a suicide note from Linda, while Christian passes out in a chair due to the strain of coming to grips with some unresolved issue. As the party grows, so does the character development. The viewer witnesses Christian make a toast to his father, telling remembrances of Linda, and then digressing into the sexual assault he endured at the hands of his father. Consistently, Christian makes toasts, such as “Here’s to the man who killed my sister…to a murderer!” As chaos ensues, Christian continues to describe the cruelties endured, and the knowledge his mother, Elsie, had but never confronted.
The Celebration confronts the dark sides to human nature and the means people use to deal with such injustices.
The Celebration examines each character while not focusing on any one particular person. According to Eric Schlosser, “Dogma films succeed because the tree elements on which they are built- characters, places, story (a mixture of ‘you can’t lie your way out of your past’ and ‘you can’t escape your inner self’) – combine seamlessly with the filmmaking technique. This is true for The Celebration, because in more cases than just that of Helge, the characters are seen as denying the past, which eventually causes them to confront the issues once buried. For example, Christian tries to bury his past for 30 years, before he decides that it is time to make his child molestation public. Additionally, Michael tries to deny the fact that he had an affair with a waitress. She confronts him at Helge’s 60th birthday party, only to tell him that she had an abortion. His denial causes him to lash out and beat her unmercifully. Finally, Elsie knew about the sexual abuse endured by Christian and Linda, yet did not act, denying the whole thing occurred. Yet, the truth that she knew what happened emerges when Christian describes how she walked in on one such occurrence. Thus, each member of the family is shown to be in denial and lying about the past, but forced to acknowledge it at some point.
The Celebration, ironically titled, can be twisted to mean not just a 60th birthday party celebration, but also a celebration of the liberation of past devils. Christian starts on the road to rehabilitation by announcing his molestation. At the end of the movie, the viewer gets the sense that Michael is closer and more protective of his children now that he is aware of what transgressed between his father and Christian and Linda 20 or 25 years ago. Helene strengthens her relationship with Gbatokai to the point that they are dancing to a wedding march during one of the last scenes of the movie. The implication being that they are to get married eventually. Even in the dream-like sequence between Christian and his dead sister Linda, Linda is celebrating to get to heaven because it is a welcome change from the nightmares she had been having. To each character, the title means something quite different.
The Celebration also focuses on the details of the interactions between characters but forces the viewer to interpret them. For example, the viewer learns from Helge that Michael is invited to join the freemasons because Christian has no interest. The implication being that Christian was the first choice. This leads the viewer to question Christian’s motives for rejecting the prestigious offer. Yet, after learning of the abuse endured, it appears that Christian’s rejection is intended to be an insult to his father Helge. Also, even with his wife (Mette) present, Michael manages to flirt with waitresses and other guests. It appears that even after Mette tries to put a stop to the flirting, Michael continues with even more panache as retaliation to her complaining. Additionally, as Helene introduces her boyfriend, Gbatokai, to Elsie, Elsie remarks, “It’s nice to see you again”, to which Helene responds, “Mother! You’ve never met him before”. While this could just be an honest mistake on Elsie’s part, she almost implies that Helene has brought other black boyfriends home and that they all look the same. Indeed, at one point in the movie, Michael starts singing a racist song, to which other partiers join in singing. Since Gbatokai does not speak Danish, Helene must explain to him what they are doing, thereby embarrassing her. Other implications between characters include the repeated mention of Michael being sent away to boarding and cooking schools while Christian was still at home. This degree of separation causes tension between the brothers, resulting in repeated and violent fights. Finally, during one of the toasts, the master of ceremonies exchanges a long glance with Elsie, and the viewer then sees the toastmaster consume wine too quickly. These actions imply that Elsie and the toastmaster have a bond not easily broken, perhaps even to the extent that she had an affair with him. The Dogmatic film style allows for all of these interactions to be documented without external influences, such as lighting, thematic music, and allows the viewer to think about each event as it arises.
The Celebration’s dark, bleak topic of child molestation focuses on the enduring wounds and each character’s manner of dealing with them. It was quite a depressing movie because the domestic violence and the fights seem so realistic relative to the fights seen in Hollywood. Here, the camera shakes and gets into the faces of the characters, making the fury intense, without the use of external music and backdrops. It is haunting how the characters come to life through those scenes, even if some of the characters involved, such as Michael’s ex-lover, have not been fully developed.
The Celebration uses the Dogma criteria to focus on one family’s coping with child-molestation. Through such techniques as natural lighting, the shakiness of the camera, and the lack of focus on any one character, the director effectively draws the viewer in to each scene and forces him or her to make assumptions and review the movie for any subtleties missed in the first or even second viewing.
Schlosser, Eric, “Dogme/Dogma or Live Cinema”, Bright Lights Film Journal, April 28, 2000, (28).
by Kathryn Gehrett
Expected Graduation Date: May 2006
Major: Chemical Engineering
Hometown: Auburn, WA
The Celebration uses a completely different method of filming than even those explored by Hitchcock and other greats. Being an avid old film watcher, I could see the progression of filming techniques and effects, yet in The Celebration, special effects were not included, nor were additional cinematics such as music. Thus, The Celebration sparked my interest in exploring the Dogma technique and its effectiveness in communicating to the audience. Much of the symbolism, lost in other Hollywood movies, became blatantly obvious in this movie. Such symbolism lent itself readily to multiple interpretations, allowing me room to explore in my essay.