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Film / The Celebration

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The Celebration (Festen) is a 1998 Danish film directed by Thomas Vinterberg. It was notably the first film made under the minimalist guidelines of Dogme '95, which were co-created by Vinterberg alongside Lars von Trier.

Helge Klingenfeldt-Hansen, a respected businessman, gathers his family and friends for his 60th birthday. Amongst the guests are his wife Elsa and his three children Christian, Helene and Michael. Tensions are running high as the family is still recovering from the suicide of Christian's twin sister Linda.

As guests arrive one by one, the action moves into the dining room where the celebration is about to begin. Christian then stands up and prepares to make a speech. However, he reveals that he has actually written two speeches contained in two envelopes (one yellow, one green) and gives his father a choice: does he want the yellow speech or the green speech? After being coaxed by his guests, Helge settles on the green speech, which Christian has dubbed the "honest speech." The guests have no idea what kind of dark family secrets are going to see the light of day as Christian begins his speech...

This film contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Helge, who raped his children Christian and Linda while they were growing up, and Else through inaction — Christian reveals that she walked in on Helge while this was happening on at least one occasion.
  • Awful Truth: The revelation of Helge's sexual abuse.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: Vinterberg stated that the story was inspired by a story told by a caller to a phone-in radio show which subsequently turned out to be a hoaxer.
  • Beneath the Mask: Even during Christian's speech and its immediate aftermath, Helge remains seemingly unperturbed to the point where it's not entirely clear if Christian is telling the truth or not. When he is alone with Christian, the façade slips, and he verbally rips Christian apart in a very condescending manner, using his Berserk Buttons of Linda's death and his trauma-induced fear of intimacy against him.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: It's like watching a gigantic familial pile-up. To elaborate, the eldest children (Christian and Linda) were repeatedly abused to the point where Linda eventually killed herself shortly before the start of the film; Helene is a radical who enjoys making her family uncomfortable mainly through her choice of boyfriends; Michael is a thug with extreme "Well Done, Son" Guy tendencies, and both Helge and Else are responsible for the abuse suffered by Christian and Linda.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Christian succeeds in his mission to out Helge as a monster, and Helge is subsequently rejected by his family, but he reminds them that they are still his family and it's implied none of them will ever want to see each other again.
  • Black Sheep: Helene tries hard to get her family to see her as this, but she is ultimately just like the rest of them. In actuality, the black sheep is arguably Christian since he abandons the family's veneer of respectability and, according to Helge, has done so repeatedly ever since he was a child.
  • Break Them by Talking: Helge attempts to do this to Christian in a private confrontation after Christian makes his speech, threatening to make his own speech about how mentally unstable Christian is and telling him that no one cares about what he's said. It almost works.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: The entire movie is about Christian confronting Helge and his attempts to get everyone at the party to understand what kind of a man Helge really is. In the process, Else also gets called out for being an Accomplice by Inaction.
  • Can't Hold His Liquor: Michael. He gets drunk very quickly and continues consuming alcohol throughout the party, which results in some pretty nasty behaviour to everyone around him.
  • Closest Thing We Got: Despite being considered the canonical "first" recognized Dogme '95-compliant film (or Dogme #1), Vinterberg admitted to very slightly bending the rules by bringing in a cover for a window in one scene despite outside props being forbidden in the guidelines. However, no one is pedantic enough to take away its canonical place.
  • Driven to Suicide: Linda, shortly before the start of the movie. It's gradually revealed to have been due to the lasting trauma of the abuse she and Christian suffered at the hands of their father.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Christian, big time. After a childhood of abuse which left him deeply traumatised, and after suffering emotionally and mentally from the recent suicide of his sister, he finally confronts his father. Although his efforts are initially met with denial and then verbal and physical threats from the man's friends and family, he is eventually able to make them see what kind of person he really is. By the end, it's implied that he might be on the way towards starting to heal.
  • Gratuitous German: Courtesy of the German toastmaster Helmut von Sachs, who frequently lapses into German and refers to Helge and Else as: "Meine dänische Vater und Mutter."
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Of a kind. Christian wrote two speeches for Helge's birthday and gives Helge the choice on which speech he will make. It's never revealed what the unchosen speech contained (or even if the speeches were at all different in the first place), but the one Helge picks is the one in which Christian outs him as a paedophile who abused him and his sister.
  • Jerkass: So many to choose from...but Michael remains the undisputed king by the end of the movie: he attacks a former lover, refuses to believe his brother (who has little reason to be lying), displays several racist and misogynistic beliefs, beats up his brother, and helps to tie him up and leave him in the woods.
  • Karma Houdini: Else, who despite being accused by Christian of witnessing his abuse and doing absolutely nothing to prevent it and repeatedly painting him as a liar after he gives his speech, is allowed to eat breakfast with the family the next day and seemingly faces no repercussions from them.
  • Minimalism: The film was made with a minimalist musical score, without post-production, as a protest against Hollywood practices.
  • Morton's Fork: Implied when Christian asks Helge to pick between two different cards for which speech to make. The one Helge picks contains a damning revelation about the sexual abuse he inflicted upon Christian and his late sister. Christian was never able to get to the other card, but it could have contained the same accusation based on a different incident, or even just been a duplicate of the other card. Alternatively, it could have been something completely benign, which Christian would have then followed with the other speech. Either way, Christian was not going to let this opportunity to call Helge out slip by.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Helmut von Sachs is portrayed by a Danish actor. His German accent is actually spot-on, but he does make a few grammatical flubs when his character speaks German.
  • Parental Incest: Helge repeatedly sexually abused his twin children, Christian and Linda, throughout their childhood.
  • Rape as Drama: The main driver of the plot is the revelation of incest in the family.
  • Retired Monster: Helge committed heinous actions towards his children well before the events of the film, then he faces the repercussions of these actions over the course of the film.
  • Sibling Rivalry: In spades. Helene and Michael both appear to view Christian as being the favourite of his parents which makes Christian's accusation all the more difficult for them to believe.
  • Stepford Smiler: Else, who has been aware of her husband's abuse of their children for decades, tries to laugh off Christian's speech and is seemingly the last person to accept the truth.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After Helene reads out Linda's suicide note, all pretext of respectability for Helge is finally dropped as he screams at his guests and indirectly admits to raping his children by telling Christian that it was "all [he] was good for".
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Michael takes this trope to disturbing levels. At one point, he even goes so far as to knock Christian out, tie him up, and drag him out to the woods — and it's implied he does this to gain his father's approval.
  • Wham Line:
    • The line that instantaneously reveals the true nature of Christian's speech: "Then he'd put us across the green couch — that's been thrown out now — and raped us, abused us sexually. He had sex with his little ones."
    • Helge's indirect confession; when Christian says that he always wondered why Helge did what he did, Helge responds, "It was all you were good for."
  • While Rome Burns: The film's all about denial, which is how a lot of the guests are still able to carry on partying despite the family's implosion.

Alternative Title(s): Festen