Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration revels in cinematic simplicity. As part of the Danish brotherhood behind Dogme 95, Vinterberg has managed to achieve what he set out on doing since establishing the collective: focusing primarily on actual storytelling without tying himself down to any technical considerations.
In 1995, Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg came up with a manifesto clamoring for a new wave of filmmaking. Considering it a “rescue operation to counter certain tendencies in film today”, they aimed to move away from stifling conventions that obstructed both actors and audiences. The main goal was to purify filmmaking by concentrating entirely on the story portrayed and the actors’ performances to better engage those who were watching. Refraining from personal taste and aesthetic considerations, directors adhering to Dogme 95 are prevented from technical manipulation to centralize on filmmaking values of story, acting and theme while essentially bringing out the truth behind a film itself. (Thompson and Bordwell 713)
To attain their ideals, both von Trier and Vinterberg, together with Danish filmmakers Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen agreed to direct films based on ten self-denying precepts, otherwise known as the “Vow of Chastity”. It states that:
- Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
- The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
- The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
- The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.)
- Optical work and filters are forbidden.
- The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
- Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
- Genre movies are not acceptable.
- The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
- The director must not be credited.
(Thompson and Bordwell 713)
The first film created under these rules was The Celebration. Labeled Dogme #1, it was a technical breakthrough that encapsulated Vinterberg’s attempt to broach the “naked film” underneath (Rosenthal and Towfigh, “Truth Telling and Healing Families: An Analysis of Thomas Vinterberg’s Film The Celebration”). Filmed using a hand-held Sony PC-700 (Rosenbaum,”Dogmatic Subterfuge [The Celebration]”) to capture a family reunion that ultimately felt like a home video, I felt like I was an innocent bystander watching a thrilling power struggle unravel before my very eyes. By making viewers feel like they are an observer, Vinterberg has fashioned real and intimate characters that concurs with what he first sought out to do. When translated to the required film format of Academy 35mm, a rather blotchy and grainy image comes on-screen that provides a surveillance point of view in exposing incest within the family.
The film opens to a drunk and perhaps abusive Michael who throws his wife and kids out of the car just to fetch his friend Christian. Sadly, his wife and kids have to walk home themselves. And while in their room, Michael starts lashing out at his wife at something insignificant and then they makes up with sex. It has been implied that this is not a surprise and has been occurring.
The hand-held digital camera was also never placed on a tripod to make it stable, seen through frantic and jerky camera movements that mirrored Helge’s family in disarray. In one particular scene that involved Michael raging at Lars after being told he was not invited to dinner, the camera continuously moves to reflect Michael’s anger. This is a technique employed throughout the film, where Vinterberg concentrates on flashing out his characters’ inner conflicts.
Notably, Vinterberg molds the Vow of Chastity into a technical liberation, where the limitations imposed instead became his inspiration. Music that ended up on the film were mostly sung by the actors, while Vinterberg illuminated Christian’s encounter with the ghost of his dead sister exclusively by a cigarette lighter.
Required to also film on location, Vinterberg decided on a hotel as he had to select a place that could serve food when capturing the family having dinner. (Mackinney, “Thomas Vinterberg”) The family dinner spirals downwards into “a long night of relevation and accusation” (Roger Ebert) where disgusting and cruel remarks were heard like how a servant still loves one of the family members who made her pregnant after abortion.
The Celebration shot itself to worldwide prominence by winning the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1998, but it goes without saying that it propelled Danish cinema to attract critical attention from their own people. One-third of Denmark witnessed a live film from each Dogme director broadcasted on different television channels on New Year’s Eve in 2000 (Thompson and Bordwell 713). Together with other Dogme 95 films that were produced, The Celebration “revitalized the entire Danish film industry… and helped to raise the market share for domestic films in Denmark to 30 percent in 2001.” (Lewis, “The Significance of Dogme 95 as a Response to Hollywood’s Dominance of the Film Market in Europe”)
Furthermore, The Celebration heralded a national cinema movement under the umbrella of Dogme 95. Vinterberg challenged the stranglehold that Hollywood had on cinema at that time. For one, it established that films to be produced from then on could compete with those in Hollywood without fretting over financial constraints. Those who aligned their films to Dogme 95 were able to tap on its increased strength and appeal as the audience were drawn to watch them knowing that they would be critically acclaimed. (Lewis, “The Significance of Dogme 95 as a Response to Hollywood’s Dominance of the Film Market in Europe”)
Moreover, The Celebration signified a future alternative to Hollywood movies. By signing on the Vow of Chastity, Vinterberg highlighted specific areas that low-budget films could not compete with (Lewis, “The Significance of Dogme 95 as a Response to Hollywood’s Dominance of the Film Market in Europe”). Serving as a huge influence, the collective was fast spreading its tentacles to other parts of the world. The maiden film that dovetailed Dogme 95 emanated from The United States of America where Harmony Korine produced “Julien Donkey Boy” in 1999 using almost 20 digital cameras (Thompson and Bordwell 713). 31 dozen film projects have also been certified as Dogma films, with only 8 of them coming from Denmark itself. The Celebration’s inception brought forth a receptive response from independent filmmakers and supporters who joined in from countries outside Denmark, marking a significant movement in the history of filmmaking (Yalgin, “Dogma/Dogme 95: Manifesto for Contemporary Cinema and Realism”).
By returning back to basics, Thomas Vinterberg should be celebrated as an inspiration for filmmakers to continuously evolve their style and also serve as a reminder to us, the audience, that storytelling takes paramount significance over all the special effects that we see in Hollywood today.
About the Author:
Haikal is an aspiring writer who enjoys reading graphic novels and takes a keen interest in concept art.
1. Lewis, Ryan. “The Significance of Dogme 95 as a Response to Hollywood’s Dominance of the Film Market in Europe..” (2013): <http://www.scribd.com/doc/45654156/The-Significance-of-Dogme-95-as-a-Response-to-Hollywood%E2%80%99s-Dominance-of-the-Film-Market-in-Europe>.
2. Mackinney, Maria. “Thomas Vinterberg.” BOMB 1999: Print.
3. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Dogmatic Subterfuge [The Celebration].” 1998. Web. 20 Jun 2013. <http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=6520>.
4. Rosenthal, Caren and Leili Towfigh. “Truth Telling and Healing Families: An Analysis of Thomas Vinterberg’s Film The Celebration.” 2001. Web. 20 Jun 2013. <http://www.leili.org/articles/celebration.html>.
5. Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell. 3rd ed. 2009. 713. Print.
6. Yalgin, Emre. “Dogma/Dogme 95: Manifesto for Contemporary Cinema and Realism.” 2003. Web. 20 Jun 2013. <http://www.thesis.bilkent.edu.tr/0002310.pdf>
7. Ebert, R. 2013. Celebrating Vinterberg’s Return To Basics. [online] Available at: https://spfilmjournal.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/celebrating-vinterbergs-return-to-basics/ [Accessed: 8 Jul 2013].