If only one film could be used to argue that courageous and innovative film-making could be used in the service of electrifying and spellbinding entertainment, Celebration would do the trick. Thomas Vinterberg's heinously underhyped film engages in the usual paradox of the Dogme film: that is, by using hand-held cameras, producing sound and picture together, eschewing studio lighting, costuming, music, and in many other ways attempting to strip away the apparatus of artificiality that purportedly stands between a film and its audience, the Dogme films in fact call attention to their own filmic-ness, simply by being outside the parameters that our eyes and ears have been accustomed to translating into a sense of naturalness. No matter how much a Dogme film may actually be akin to the way in which we perceive and experience the immediate physical world, it is the Hollywood style of picture that we are accustomed to process as reality. Certainly Dogme is not the only movement in any medium to have confronted the fact that in art, naturalism is achieved through artifice, while nature reads as artificial. But while the visual presentation of Celebration emphasizes precisely that awareness of the camera it attempts (or pretends to attempt) to negate, this is not what we generally understand as an art film.
In a sense, the continuum along which we measure narrative or feature films and experimental or art films is like the continuum on which we situate contemporary fiction and poetry. Both call into play a means (picture and sound, or language) and an end (story, content, argument). Narrative films and fiction tend to employ the means to the end, as is conventional; experimental film or contemporary poetry tend to emphasize the means over the end, or to place the means in the limelight with the end. Naturally, as on any good continuum, there is a middle area where intersection occurs. In Celebration, however, it is the audience who, as a result of its training, emphasizes the means and pays attention to the camera work and other details of the production which the director believes or claims to believe are invisible, or indistinguishable from reality, the lived experience. Celebration gives the story all the attention it deserves, and the plot is the stuff of the most satisfying melodrama.
Two twins, one dead by her own hand with rumors of unspeakabilities. A fetching and honest maidservant. A drunken and outrageous brother. A shocking interracial affair! An enduring upstairs-downstairs friendship. Mysterious signs scribbled on the wall, allegations of scandal, rough fondlings, physical violence of every ilk, and the very best wine flowing freely. If it weren't for the extraordinary sensitivity of the actors and their reluctance to roughhouse their parts (which no doubt arises in part from the characters' own reluctance to come to grips with an increasingly unavoidable truth), this would be soap opera at its lurid best. Ulrich Thomsen in the lead role as Christian is stupendous: befuddledly determined, shyly grim, politely and stiffly the right arm of vengeance. Paprika Steen as his sister Helene is another stand-out: weary, blowsy, smoking endless cigarettes with a particular suck-and-exhale technique that gives an instantaneous and tangible knowledge of the dry stickiness of her tongue and the roof of her mouth. She staggers between the moral extremes of hypocrisy and loyalty like a sloppy drunk. And Klaus Bondam, playing the toastmaster at the family reunion, is also impeccable as he doggedly and unthinkably continues with dignified mindlessness to plow through the conventions of the evening in the face of a total familial apocalypse.
Celebration, then, is the best kind of old-fashioned entertainment. The manner in which the film is produced may seem artificial in its departure from mainstream techniques, but it is paradoxical not only in the sense that in employing the techniques of naturalism it produces an effect of artificiality. The second paradox of Vinterberg's interpretation of the doctrine of Dogme lies in the fact that this sense of unnaturalness in no way excludes a simultaneous sense of shocking intimacy and immediacy. Close-ups of mouths and eyes twitching, fingers tapping, the quick sounds of glasses clicking and footsteps on dry dirt or leaves, the jolts and trembles of the cameras in the hands of the actors: all these combine to give a dizzying and almost sickening sense of being trapped inside the film, something almost akin to the IMAX experience from which this, at any technical level, could not be more removed.
These techniques have parallels in more mainstream cinema, of course. The Blair Witch Project is one example. But while that film was understood to be reality and unmasked as fiction, Celebration is exactly the reverse: the real wolf in sheep's clothing.
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