Breaking With Convention
In the autumn of 1517, a German cleric named Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, assailing Catholic dogma. In autumn of 1995, two Danish directors pinned 10 commandments of “Dogma” to the catholic conventions of international filmmaking.
Though it’s unlikely that the quasi-Puritan decree of “Dogme 95" will have quite the effect of worldwide Protestantism, it makes the arrival of Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” something of a filming cause celebre.
The deeply dark comedy--which moves from its appearance at the New York Film Festival into theaters on Friday--was the winner of the special jury prize at Cannes this year and was one of two films at that festival produced according to the rigid strictures of “Dogme 95,” the declaration of principles whose signatories include Vinterberg and his compatriot, Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves,” “Idiots”).
The Dogme “vows of chastity” include shooting on location in 35-millimeter color with hand-held cameras, no unnatural sound and no music; they disallow any “genre” movies or “superficial action” and adhere to a virtually Aristotelian allegiance to time.
“I think there are several levels of why I did Dogme and why Lars did,” Vinterberg said during the recent Toronto Film Festival. “Politically, so to speak, the idea was to break up the conventions of filmmaking, not only in Denmark but within ourselves. I mean, if you automatically put lights on and a score with strings, it has nothing to do with art--or, at least, it reduces the risk that should be connected with making film.”
Also, he said, there was the “frame” imposed by Dogme’s limitations and what that meant for the filmmaker.
“It became obvious that a very definite frame is inspiring,” he said. “Everybody frames what he’s doing. A painter does. To do an interview, you make choices. To me, it was enlightening to cut back all the possibilities and say this is what you have to work in. And the result is, if something is not possible here, something grows up right next to it.”
For example, he said, there’s no music in his film. “But I think that’s why the family sings all the time. It makes you write so everybody sings. You’re not allowed to use lamps, so we had a good time using cigarette lighters in some of the scenes. Obstacles make your imagination grow.
“I have the feeling that audiences don’t mind,” he said. “I have a feeling that audiences are quite honest and quite clever. They want a story and they want something that’s consequent. Something that’s either something close to the actors, drama, a good story. Or ‘Godzilla,’ which I think is fine.”
Vinterberg, 29, graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in 1993; his thesis film, “Last Round,” won the jury and producer’s awards at the International Student Film Festival in Munich, first prize in Tel Aviv and, in 1994, an Oscar nomination. He is, at the same time, in danger of becoming as well known for his looks as for his films. (“People that good looking are supposed to be dumb,” actress Rachel Griffiths said during the Toronto festival. “It just isn’t fair.”)
Vinterberg called Dogme “the most liberating thing” he’d ever been involved in, describing it as a way of “undressing the film, so to speak, to remove the layers between the players and audience so that you become somewhat closer to the truth.”
And truth--its elusive nature, its denial--are at the heart of “The Celebration.” In it, a puff-chested patriarch (played by veteran Danish movie father figure Henning Moritzen) celebrates his 60th birthday, gathering to his sprawling country estate all his nearest and dearest. The celebrators include his eldest son, Christian, who chooses the very elegant occasion to spill the public beans about some dirty family secrets, prodded, it seems, by his twin sister’s recent suicide.
The film (the Danish title is the more ironic-sounding “Festen”) stars two Vinterberg veterans, Ulrich Thomsen as Christian and fellow Danish actor Thomas Bo Larsen as his younger and equally troubled brother Michael. Both starred in Vinterberg’s first feature, “The Greatest Heroes.”
“ ‘Heroes’ was actually an attempt to make an entertaining film for a broader audience,” Vinterberg said, “and it turned out to be the opposite. . . .”
“With ‘Festen,’ we said, ‘It’s a very tough film, we’d love to do it, but nobody is going to see it.’ Now, it’s spread out to 27 different countries. I like that you can’t control what is selling. Like when Hollywood sends out ‘Batman and Robin’ and nobody goes.”
One other novel aspect of “Celebration” is that unlike the multitude of TV and Hollywood movies that employ child abuse as a dramatic device, in “Celebration” it doesn’t feel exploitative.
“I think there’s a reason,” Vinterberg said. “Namely, that we didn’t make a film about the topic of child abuse. The film is mostly about the suppression of truth. Denial. And as long as you go that way and make a film about that . . . everything starts to click. And I think these things are so connected you can’t talk about child abuse isolated, you have to talk about the whole family structure, why did it occur.”
The family structure in Denmark and the importance afforded it “border on religion,” said Jytte Jensen, a curator in the film department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a native of Denmark.
“Almost every law that is passed there is intended to make the family more secure, either socially or economically,” she said. “It’s really not proper to talk about personal things, so something like child abuse, horrible things, have to be completely ignored.
“The situation depicted in ‘Celebration’ is perfectly accurate. The concern wouldn’t be with what was being disclosed or discussed but with whether the father was being made uncomfortable.”
In fact, the running gag in “The Celebration” is how the party never ends; no matter what appalling act has just been disclosed, the guests never drop their sense of propriety.
“The humor is very Danish,” Thomsen quipped. “Something awful happens and the reaction is, ‘Let’s have our coffee.’ ”
Response to the film in Denmark has been, to say the least, dramatic. Audience members there have reportedly fainted. The response here should be a bit more restrained, given less formal American attitudes, although the audience should be more sophisticated than most because. . . .
“It’s subtitled,” Vinterberg explains. “It leaves out all the stupid people. That’s how I see it. Of course, it makes it very difficult to make the money and get distribution. But to be a little arrogant, it’s very hard in Europe to ignore the fact that North Americans are too stupid to read subtitles. You know?”
He laughs. “But in some sense, it’s very difficult. Europe has a complex about America. Often the American culture is like rolling over Europe; we have McFries on every corner, things like that. So I think to us it’s important not to give in too much and start to serve the American territories with our films. We have to do what we do. And those who want to see it, see it.”