The Celebration (Festen) is a confrontational 1998 black comedy from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg that kickstarted the Dogme 95 film movement. Starring Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, and Thomas Bo Larsen, the film follows a son who reveals some shocking revelations at his wealthy father’s 60th birthday celebration. The Criterion Collection brings the first Dogme 95 film to Blu-ray with an impressive A/V package that lovingly preserves the original vision of the film. Special Features are extensive which should please fans of the film. Highly Recommended.
“Here’s to the man who killed my sister.”
Festen means celebration but this film offers very little reason to celebrate. A family gathering out in the country may seem like a wonderful idea to some but if you’re hiding a terrifying secret from your relatives, and if the patriarch is also harboring a grim secret, then you may be in the lower circles of hell. While a difficult watch for some, The Celebration contains plenty of pitch-black humor commonplace within Danish films. Director Thomas Vinterberg wields the darkness with edgy precision giving viewers an arresting feature film that kicked off the Dogme 95 Movement with aplomb.
The film opens with the chaotic assembly of a wealthy family at their patriarch’s 60th birthday celebration at his lavish country estate. Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) is picked up on the roadside by his arrogant brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) who isn’t invited but cajoles his way into the house. Sister Helene smokes weed in the cab followed by the noisy caravan of cars racing to the hotel. Once everyone has settled the group meets in the main dining hall to begin the festivities. Federen (Henning Moritzen) gives a speech about his 60th and his family buying the lodge and calling it home. While his father holds back tears of nostalgia, Christian glares at him also hold back tears of anger. The guests applaud the father’s legacy and life.
Christian proposes the first toast which he calls “Dad’s Bath”. He admits jokingly during the speech that his father would rape him and his sister Linda before taking his bath every day. The room is dead quiet. Federen is clearly awestruck at his son’s words, unable to speak. The guests are troubled, but Mother laughs it off. This bombshell revelation shatters the house of cards that kept the family together for decades. From here The Celebration unravels as each member of the family confronts the hidden demons they’ve ignored.
Vinterberg shot the feature on a consumer-grade Sony dcr-pc3 Digital Video camera. For contemporary audiences, this creates a grainy ’90s home movie style which amplifies the raw elements of the film. Balancing this emotional intensity is precisely the impact needed to satisfy the rigid Dogme 95 criteria and serve this compelling and confrontational story.
Started by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, Dogme 95 was intended to bring a “high art” perspective to filmmaking that had begun to rely upon special effects and audience manipulation. Their manifesto prescribed rigid rules despite the tongue-in-cheek content in the “certified” Dogme 95 films to follow. This first film The Celebration premiered in 1998 and the movement was eventually disbanded in 2005. Their style lives on as emphasized by Harmony Korine and other edgy filmmakers bucking the trends of contemporary filmmaking.
Festen is an uncomfortable film that explores the collective denial a family expresses in their guilt-ridden lives knowing their patriarch was an abuser. Tackling the subject matter with dark humor renders the film difficult to access along with the limitations of the Dogme 95 style affording the feature an arresting and inescapable atmosphere. The screenplay was based around a radio show segment in which a young man recounted his history of abuse. Vinterberg would explore similar themes with his excellent 2012 film The Hunt.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Celebration arrives in the Criterion Collection with a 2 Blu-ray set. The discs are housed in a typical transparent case with a stripped-down minimalist artwork that evokes the Dogme 95 aesthetic brilliantly. The two discs are accompanied by an insert booklet with the manifesto printed on the cover. Loading the discs offer spartan menu screens with black text on a white background without music.
The unique shooting limitations presented in the Dogme 95 Manifesto give The Celebration an interesting look from an era of early digital consumer video cameras. Criterion’s Blu-ray is an AVC encoded 1080p resolution in the film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio that carefully walks the line between preserving the film and altering it beyond recognition. Sourced from a 2k transfer that was produced from a 35mm digital intermediate negative made from the original DigiBeta tapes - the resulting HD image clearly respects the artist’s intent.
If the transfer was taken directly from the original DV tapes it's possible that some artifacts could’ve been removed or at least minimized but here we gain some improvements in depth and clarity. There is some detail present within well-lit environments but the format doesn’t allow for a finely detailed appearance. Shooting handheld on miniDV in PAL format will afford a maximum 720p resolution at best. Colors are subdued and muddy though peaks of green, reds, and yellows are visible. Vinterberg uses the format in astounding ways to maximize the trauma of the evening which creates confusion through the handheld camera work.
The Celebration arrives at the party with only an LPCM Mono track in Danish with English subtitles Limited to on-location audio within the scenes and no pre-recorded music; the film is dialogue-heavy occupying the center channel with gusto. Exchanges are clearly discerned, though some echo is apparent at times within larger spaces like the lodge hall. Audio cuts occur when the shots cut showing that Vinterberg didn’t overlay audio furthering the lo-fi style needed for the strict Dogme 95 rules.
The Criterion Collection has loaded this release with featurettes, documentaries, and archival films. Start with the feature commentary track then move through the discs to further dive into Dogme95 and the impact of The Celebration.
It’s an interesting time for the Dogme 95 films to resurface with the mainstream popularity of reality shows, vloggers, and the Youtube generation seeking their entertainment from unfiltered sources. Vinterberg’s The Celebration with its verite style and grainy handheld camera strips away the varnish and glamor to seek that uncomfortable emotional catharsis. Its format and storytelling limitations feel at home in a time where everyone is pointing a camera at themselves.
The Criterion Collection brings The Celebration to Blu-ray in an excellent release with an A/V package that respects the film’s artistic intent while preserving it for future audiences. Pairing it with a bevy of special features this release comes Highly Recommended.