There's a lot to celebrate in Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg
's intense competition entry about a large family gathering that starts badly and gets much worse.
Filmed in a herky-jerky style that never grows tiresome and deftly mixing off-color humor with arch drama, "The Celebration" (Festen) rarely slows down to let the strong material sink in, but it's virtuoso filmmaking that should garner fans in subsequent festival exposure, with a U.S. art house release an outside possibility.
In a rural hotel in Denmark, an elaborate party and dinner unfolds in honor of Helge (Henning Moritzen
), the family patriarch celebrating his 60th birthday with friends and family. Everyone seems to have gotten past the tragic death of one of his two daughters, Linda, whose twin Christian (Ulrich Thomsen
) arrives with a shocking agenda as the attention-getting oldest sibling.
At the outset, tension revolves around youngest son Michael Thomas Bo Larsen
), a flamboyant jerk who fights continually with his beleaguered wife (Helle Dolleris
) and fiendishly needles sluttish sister Helene (Paprika Steen
). Known for his drunken meltdowns, Michael boisterously tries to derail Christian when the latter drops a bomb on the black-tie gathering.
With a few drinks in him and in a deadpan delivery, Christian reveals that both he and his dead twin Linda were sexually abused as children by Helge. Known for his jokes, the father squirms uncomfortably and Christian's initial frontal assault is quickly dismissed by Michael and Helene. But Christian's longtime friend, the hotel chef (Bjarne Henriksen
), encourages him to go all the way and arranges for the guests' car keys to be hidden, preventing anyone from leaving even if things get unbearably ugly.
They do. Christian accuses Helge of murdering Linda and is hustled out of the hotel by Michael. He returns to damn his mother (Birthe Neumann
) for not stopping her husband. Eventually Linda's farewell letter is read by Helene and there's no longer any doubt. Passing out from the enormous amount of wine he's imbibed, Christian has a mystical experience and encounters Linda's ghost, which haunts the hotel.
The film is crowded with ancillary characters and relationships, including Helene's black English-speaking boyfriend (Gbatokai Dakinah
) and Christian and Michael's former lovers now working as maids in the hotel. Seemingly headed toward a grim resolution, the film manages an upbeat finale that leaves one curiously unsatisfied, but still bowled over by the daring and well-paced ensemble project with all-around engaging performances.
Nimbus Film APS
Screenwriters--Thomas Vinterberg, Morgens Rukov
Director of photography--Anthony Dod Mantle
Second camera--Peter Hjorth
Sound designer--Morten Holm
Michael--Thomas Bo Larsen
Running time -- 105 minutes