Criterion Review: THE CELEBRATION (1996)

The first film of the Dogme 95 movement is as dark and droll as ever in this impressive 2K restoration

According to its creators Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, the Dogme 95 movement attempted to “purify” filmmaking of an excessive and manipulative abundance of in-camera and post-production trickery that alienated audiences from the films pervading cinemas in the 1990s. Aided by a cheekily strict manifesto, films that took Dogme 95’s vow of chastity were stripped of music, non-diegetic props and lighting equipment, settings outside of the “here and now,” shot entirely on film, and refused to credit their director, among other extreme requirements. The result, in a perfect world, would thrust audiences into a story set in the immediacy of modern-day, where experimentation under such limitations would be celebrated, and the performances by the actors could be a main focus once more.

Released in 1998, Vinterberg’s The Celebration (Festen) was the first film officially part of the Dogme 95 movement. Set at a massive hotel estate, owner and patriarch Helge (Henning Moritzen) is set to celebrate his 60th birthday with his equally sprawling generations of descendants. Of note are Helge’s three children: black sheep son Michael (Thomas Bo Larson), initially disinvited due to his tendency to over-imbibe; daughter Helene (Paprika Steen), whose Black boyfriend Gbatokai roils the more racist “tradition-minded” members of the family; Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), the eldest, still grieves the only sibling not present for the festivities. Helge’s other daughter, Linda, recently killed herself at the hotel, her ultimate motivations still a mystery.

Over the course of the evening, however, more is made clear than the reasons behind Linda’s death. During a series of comedic toasts, Christian brings Helge’s party crashing to a halt when he drops a bombshell that concerns himself, Linda, and their feted father. The resulting chaos is either feverishly debated or desperately ignored by the guests present. Christian’s attempts to further expose Helge for who he really is are silenced by means ranging from social impoliteness to forced restraint to increasing amounts of violence.

Vinterberg’s dedication to the tenets of Dogma 95 creates an endlessly manic air to the party’s fraying niceties, burrowing deeper and deeper under his ensemble’s collective skin until their secrets, anxieties, and wholly animalistic natural tendencies are all laid bare. It’s also a fiendishly funny film, riddled with the same nuanced dark comedy and bleak drama that provides the seed for future Vinterberg classics The Hunt and Another Round. Shot on then-novel mini-DV tapes, The Celebration also functions as a unique time capsule not just of a cinematic movement that lasted 35 films, but of the burgeoning spirit of independent filmmaking that transformed global cinema in the mid-90s. There’s a relentless spirit of innovation here, as Vinterberg and crew mine every inch of their surroundings for their natural dramatic capabilities (though later commentaries would reveal one betrayal of the manifesto in using a cover on a windowpane to adjust lighting). In the same fashion, remastering the film for modern-day Blu-ray pushes these archival elements to their functional limits–with the muddled yet sharp colors of ancient digital technology providing a fascinatingly murky window into a long-gone era of filmmaking that was once on the cutting edge.

A long-awaited title for many collectors, Criterion’s package of The Celebration culls together an impressive wealth of special features that rigorously document not just the history and legacy of Vinterberg’s film, but also of the Dogme 95 movement itself. New interviews with Vinterberg, 45 minutes of restored deleted scenes, and two feature-length archival documentaries on Dogme 95 and frequent cinematographer collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle compliment additional TV specials and interviews to provide a definitive edition of a controversial and bitingly charming Danish classic.


Criterion’s presentation of The Celebration is sourced from a 2018 2K digital restoration by the Danish Film Institute of a 35mm film answer print, which was struck from the 35mm print digital intermediate negative created from the original digibeta tapes. The accompanying monaural Danish-language soundtrack is sourced from a remastered 35mm optical soundtrack positive. Both English and English SDH subtitles are provided for the feature film, as well as any Special Features not in English.

As mentioned before, Criterion and the Danish Film Institute have pulled out all the stops in pushing the capabilities of mini-DV film material for this 2K presentation. Colors are harshly represented yet never distractingly so, with textures and superficial details represented as much as they can be before disappearing into equally-defined film grain. The presentation thankfully doesn’t have the PAL to NTSC DV “ghosting” or haloing that has plagued earlier transfers–some motion smoothing has been applied, but judiciously so.

Keeping with Dogme 95 rules, the film’s audio was captured as naturally as possible on-set, and was not “over-produced” with other equipment throughout production and post-production. The resulting mix can sound chaotically layered, but in spite of the self-imposed aesthetic restrictions, dialogue is well-defined and clear throughout the film.

Special Features:

Disc One:

  • Audio Commentary: This 2005 archival commentary features writer-director Thomas Vinterberg, who provides key insight into the limitations faced and overcome during production, as well as his recurring collaborations (and conflicts!) with actors and key production staff.
  • Thomas Vinterberg: This newly recorded interview with Vinterberg has the writer-director examine the origins and progression of his most recurrent themes, from his early student work to his off-and-on career in his native Denmark and abroad, culminating with Another Round.

Disc Two:

  • Short Films: Criterion presents two of Vinterberg’s early student short films, Last Round (1993) and The Boy Who Walked Backwards (1995).
  • The Purified: An 2002 archival documentary about the Dogme 95 movement, featuring interviews with filmmakers Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, Kristian Levring, and Lars Von Trier, in addition to Celebration co-writer Mogens Rukov.
  • Disclosure of The Celebration: A 2005 archival interview with Danish TV that features Vinterberg discussing the real-life inspiration for The Celebration.
  • Behind the Scenes: A 1998 archival documentary made for Danish television featuring interviews with the cast and crew of The Celebration at the film’s premiere in Copenhagen.
  • The Celebration in Retrospect: A 2005 archival documentary with the film’s cast and crew reflecting on the film’s wild production process and how the film’s legacy has developed in the years since its release.
  • ADM:DOP: A 2003 documentary about frequent Vinterberg, Lars Von Trier, and Dogme 95 cinematographer and collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle.
  • Deleted Scenes: A selection of 12 remastered deleted scenes (including an alternate ending), totaling about 45 minutes in length. Each scene is presented with bookends to reveal where these extracts would have taken place in their original context of the film. Optional commentary by Vinterberg is available, giving further illumination on his editorial choices.
  • Trailer for The Celebration’s original theatrical release.
  • Booklet featuring the Dogme 95 manifesto and an essay by Museum of the Moving Image editorial director Michael Koresky.

Cheekily paying homage to the stripped-down, anonymous nature of the Dogme 95 movement, Criterion has no cover art for this release.

The Celebration is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

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