The original title of the film that became The Celebration was “Festen.” It debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 and was the first widely recognized film for its young director, Thomas Vinterberg, and was eagerly anticipated by the festival audience because it was the first film produced according to the Dogme 95 Vows of Chastity.
Dogme 95 was the name established by a group of Danish directors who published a manifesto about filmmaking in 1995. In it, they proclaimed their desire to eschew modern, mind-numbing filmmaking techniques in favor of a more honest, real life approach, and they vowed to abide by certain principles. The original manifesto was signed by Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier. Von Trier was said to be the driving force behind it. Two other Danish directors, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring, signed on to Dogme 95 after the manifesto was written.
The Dogme 95 Vows of Chastity were designed to strip away the artifice of filmmaking and as the original document states “force the truth out of our characters and settings”. The members vowed, and I paraphrase:
- To only shoot on location, with no use of outside props or sets
- Never to use sound produced apart from the images
- All camera work would be handheld
- All film would be in color, with only the lighting native to the location
- To not use optical work and filters
- That their films would not contain murders or weapons
- To have films take place in the here and now
- No genre films
- To only use Academy 35 mm format
- That the director would not be credited
Vinterberg had heard from a friend the real-life story of a young man who confronted his father at a family gathering, about sexual abuse. This story germinated into the script for “Festen” and as it later became known, The Celebration, which was written in seven weeks by Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov. It was shot entirely with handheld digital video cameras, according to the Dogme rules, though Vinterberg later wrote a “confession” and listed a few small ways he had violated the Dogme rules, for example, allowing some of the actors to purchase outfits and attaching a camera to a boom for one shot. The Celebration was also known as “Dogme #1”, and was enthusiastically received at Cannes as the first artistic success of the Dogme 95 group.
The themes of the film involve family, the power of abuse, secrets and unspoken agreements, social inequity, and ultimately the liberating and healing power of truth. I plan to analyze the scene called “My sister is here”. It portrays the protagonist, Christian, reuniting with his sister, Linda, who committed suicide months earlier, in a dream or altered state. I believe that this scene is pivotal to the story as it relates to the fate of the character Christian, and whether he goes on to live or die.
In the film, Christian is the driving force of truth telling at his father’s birthday weekend. His relentless admissions of truth are unwelcome and uncorroborated. He seems on the verge of dying in the effort to be heard. The scene “My sister is here” is a turning point in the plot because this contact made with his sister seems to give Christian the validation and the permission to choose life for himself thereafter. In the midst of his “dream” he tells Pia he loves her, and after waking he invites her to come live with him in Paris. Before this contact with Linda, who is glowing radiantly, lit with a single candle, there seems to be only darkness in this family. Linda’s visit to Christian (whether it is all in his mind or whether it is “real”) brings light to him. It gives him the strength to go on and live.
The scene illuminates and underscores the themes of the film. I believe that in this flickering moment of contact with the radiant and pure spirit of his sister’s love, Christian receives the power to heal, to choose life post-family secrets and sickness.
Part One: The Scene
The scene “My sister is here” consists of 39 quick shots. Together they create an oasis of darkness, quiet and peace in the midst of the corrupt, or at the very least, obtuse weekend revelers. The editing is not classic Hollywood style editing, but more like a documentary or French New Wave.
The scene begins after Christian has made his shocking revelations repeatedly, in an attempt to have the truth get through to the other guests that are gathered for the celebration. He has been ridiculed and beaten up for his assertions.
We see a ballroom where people are dancing to piano music, seemingly oblivious to the ugly realities that Christian has tried to expose. Then we cut to silence as Christian is stumbling in a hallway toward the front desk. The camera moves into a Dutch angle as we see a close-up of Christian and he looks disoriented and unwell. He collapses and we see his face hit the floor. From there, as he stares blindly, another dimension seems to open up.
The Mise-en-scene becomes very dark and quiet. It feels far away from the festivities. We see quick shots of a candle being lit. We are struck by the silence, which is punctuated by the sound of a phone ringing, and Christian’s name being whispered. There is another cut of his face, still on the floor. We see flickering shots of a radiant woman we assume to be Linda, his twin sister. In the midst of this, Christian whispers to Pia and wakes her. He says “Pia. My sister is here. I love you” and kisses her. We see Christian walking with a candle, looking for something, and the screen direction changes back and forth.
Ultimately, we watch as Christian, in the deepest dark of the scene, comes face to face with Linda, his beloved sister who has left the earth. She tells him she misses him. He says he misses her too and asks if he should go with her. She shakes her head no, and as she does, the Dutch angle moves into a level angle. This illustrates that his disorientation and dread (from being the victim of the family disease and denial) is righting itself.
In their quiet cocoon, Linda tells Christian that she has to go, and he says okay. They embrace, and there are three shots of them quietly embracing. In the third and most tender shot of that embrace, the phone that we have been hearing throughout the scene is at its faintest; almost imperceptible. It conveys the feeling that Christian is very far away from normal reality in this moment. It is as if Christian and Linda are meeting between the two worlds, untouched by their father, the corruption, and the gathering in the house.
Part Two: The Film
The Celebration was made under the radical rules of Dogme 95, and its editing and mis-en-scene are very far from the beaten path of Hollywood movies. With the handheld camera work, it looks more like a documentary than a narrative film. There are violations of many Hollywood rules, such as the 180-degree rule, throughout the film.
According to Vinterberg, as part of the Dogme sensibility, the actors who played the partygoers had no idea what was going to unfold in the story. They were all on location, in the beautiful castle, for two weeks, getting to know each other and the family members. They were specifically fond of Henning Moritzen, who played Helge, Christian’s father, because as far as they knew, he was the loving patriarch of the story. He was also a well-known Danish actor who had previously played countless roles as a man of virtue.
When Christian made his first toast and shocking revelation about Helge, these actors were genuinely blindsided, and some of them literally did not register the import.
While the filmmaking techniques were very unconventional and some of the content and dialogue (a father who raped his children) is also radically intense, the narrative of this story is actually classic dramaturgy. Many have said that it can be likened to Hamlet.
Perhaps this dichotomy of radical and classical is what makes the film so compelling. As Palle Schantz Lauridsen, Professor of Nordic Philology at University of Copenhagen, wrote about The Celebration in the online publication P.O.V in 2000:
“What interests me … is the relation between the art cinema/docu soap style on the one hand and the classical dramaturgy on the other. The dramaturgical angle is also relevant considering the fact that the dogme manifesto openly criticizes dramaturgy, stating that “Predictability (dramaturgy) has become the golden calf around which we dance”, indicating that we should stop doing so. One might thus expect The Celebration not to follow the predictable rules of dramaturgy. Director Thomas Vinterberg, however, explained in an interview that he gave up that idea at a very early stage.”
Claus Christiansen a writer on the editorial staff of the film periodical Ekko, wrote in the same publication: “The story of a son’s revolt against his father might as well in principle have been a tragedy by Shakespeare…but Thomas Vinterberg tells his story in a documentary style, thus combining the strength of two genres otherwise kept strictly apart.”
In an interview with Maria Mackinney for the winter 1999 issue of BOMB magazine, Thomas Vinterberg himself made reference to the classic dramaturgy of The Celebration: “… I felt that it was very interesting to make this modern project of DOGME meets the classical.”
Indeed, as Vinterberg also pointed out, the antagonist and protagonist are very easy to recognize in this story. The film maintains unity of space, time and action, and by the end of the film, the villain has been slain, so to speak.
The film can be divided into the four standard dramaturgical phases: Presentation Complication, Confrontation and Resolution, without even taking into account the scene “My sister is here”. However, I maintain that this scene is pivotal in the story of Christian’s psyche, and that without it, the resolution (Helge’s goodbye speech) would not mean much.
In early scenes, Pia seeks attention from Christian but he is preoccupied. She even makes comments about him to herself, such as “You don’t even notice a pretty girl anymore.” We wonder what he cares about. As the action unfolds, and Christian makes his speech, his goal becomes clear: To tell the truth, expose his father, vindicate his sister. We don’t know what he cares about beyond that, and we wonder, “Does he care about his own life?”
In the scene “My sister is here” an exchange occurs. Christian receives something transformative from his contact with Linda. As he is beginning to connect with Linda, within the dream sequence, we see him begin to reach out to Pia as well. When Linda responds to Christian’s question “Shall I come with you?” with the simple shake of her head and love expressed in her face and embrace, Christian receives permission, a blessing, to go on, to live and to love outside of the family structure.
In the morning it seems Christian has a new goal: heterosexual romance. At breakfast he invites Pia to come and live with him in Paris. In addition to the romance element, this also indicates that Christian is differentiating from his family’s social stratosphere, wherein the staff exists on a lower level, to be used.
This element of classism ties in with the theme of racism, which is displayed in the scene where Michael leads the guests in a racist song as a deliberate slap in the face to the character of Gbatokai. In an interview for the book “The Name of this Book is Dogme 95” by Richard Kelly, Mr. Vinterberg described the evolution of that character and actor. His motivation for casting the actor (Vinterberg’s good friend Gbatokai) was to spend time with him. Upon Gbatokai’s entry into the cast, Vinterberg decided to introduce the issue of racism because of its kinship with the main theme of the film. He stated, “Oppression of the truth is very closely related to being afraid of anything foreign.”
The scene “My sister is here” is different from any other scene in the film, in terms of sound, lighting and acting. I believe it is an oasis of purity, of darkness and silence that transforms this film from being essentially a documentary about a sick family and a bunch of bourgeois partygoers into an elegant and elevating work of art.
The story may have resolved itself without the scene “My sister is here”, but I think it was that scene that made possible Christian’s emergence into life post-shame, complete with new and life-affirming goals.
Works of art are subjective, and each person will see them through a personal lens. I have read many different interpretations of this film. In some of them, the scene “My sister is here” is mentioned barely or not at all. In other writers’ accounts, this scene is the weak point of the movie because it looks too closely related to a particular genre, which is against Dogme rules. But Vinterberg himself said in his interview with Kelly that trying to avoid genre is a “bad rule” because it is like not being allowed to have taste, which is impossible.
While I can agree the main events in this story involve the family secrets being exposed, the truth being told, and the antagonist admitting defeat, I absolutely cannot dismiss the importance of the scene “My sister is here.”
In my estimation, this scene, in one fell swoop, leaves its mark on every theme of the film. I would go so far as to say that in its beauty it ameliorates the evils populating all the previous scenes. To me, this scene is the heart of the film. As in a body, without the heart, the rest means nothing.
Kelly, Richard. The Name of This Book Is Dogme 95. England: Faber And Faber, 2000. Print.
Roman, Shari. Digital Babylon. Hollywood, CA: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 2001. Print.
MacKinney, Maria. Thomas Vinterberg. Bomb Magazine. Web. Dec. 1999. <http://bombsite.com/issues/66/articles/2195>.
Christiansen, Claus. #10. P.O.V.. Web. 27 Apr. 2013. <http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_10/POV_10cnt.html>.
Lauridsen, Palle S. #10. P.O.V.. Web. 27 Apr. 2013. <http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_10/POV_10cnt.html>.