The Danish Dogme 95 movement that struck world cinema like a thunderbolt began with The Celebration, the international breakthrough by Thomas Vinterberg, a lacerating chamber drama that uses the economic and aesthetic freedoms of digital video to achieve annihilating emotional intensity. On a wealthy man’s sixtieth birthday, a sprawling group of family and friends convenes at his country estate for a celebration that soon spirals into bedlam, as bombshell revelations threaten to tear away the veneer of bourgeois respectability and expose the traumas roiling beneath. The dynamic handheld camera work, grainy natural lighting, cacophonous diegetic sound, and raw performance style that would become Dogme hallmarks enhance the shattering visceral impact of this caustic indictment of patriarchal failings, which swings between blackest comedy and bleakest tragedy as it turns the sick soul of a family inside out.
The first film in the Dogme 95 filmmaking movement, The Celebration (directed by Thomas Vinterberg), receives a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection. The film is presented on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode has been sourced from a 2018 2K restoration. That may sound all well and good but there is a fairly big caveat to that, one of which I'm sure most are aware: the film was shot and edited on digibeta video tape before being transferred to 35mm film for theatrical distribution. The base scan for the restoration comes from a 35mm answer print that was struck directly from the original digital intermediate negative, so while the scanned source is technically not too far off from the original “elements,” the underlying image almost certainly comes from a PAL video source, which has a maximum resolution of 720x576. This of course means a high-definition upgrade is only going to be able to do so much. The fact that the restorers went to a film copy made around the time of the film’s release in 1998 instead of the original tapes, if they still exist, means that there are going to be all sorts of artifacts and issues baked into the film elements that could have possibly been “corrected” if the original tapes were used. Due to all of this, the presentation isn’t going to look ideal from an HD perspective, and I feel it's worth addressing right off the bat to temper expectations. Of course, it should also be stated that this is how the film is supposed to look!
Getting past all of the shortcomings that are going to be there this does still come out looking very good for what it is. I confess I’m not 100% sure around the technical details of the original video materials, but I assume it was shot in PAL, meaning 50hz frame-rate, which I then must assume was “switched” (for lack of a better technical term) to 24fps when those tapes were transferred to film for theatrical distribution. No artifacts of note are present on the Blu-ray because of that adjustment, and the image does run very smooth, or at least about as smooth as video allows. Details also aren’t all that bad, and despite limitations of video technology the image still manages to look fairly sharp when all is said and done, even in the film’s darker sequences (one of the Dogme rules is that only light already present can be used).
Artifacts are, unsurprisingly, a consistent issue. The image is very noisy and pixelated, blocky patterns appearing all throughout. The lighting also doesn’t help things, again due to the light restriction set in the Dogme rules: some scenes can look very blown out and others very dark, with noise levels varying based on the situation. The image also has a very video look, right down to moiré patterns constantly popping up. Colours are not great, with saturation all over the place and murky black levels to boot, but again this is all because of the source materials and the rules, with another rule being that no post-production corrections can be done to the image. This is more than likely why an original film element was sourced instead of the original tapes: you’re just about guaranteed to get the original “look” the film had during its theatrical run.
So, while the underlying image is what it is, I still have to offer praise around the restoration and the encode. The scan of the film elements hasn’t introduced any artifacts or issues, and when the noise in the video picture isn’t interfering you can actually make out the grain of the film elements, and it looks pretty clean. There are also no film imperfections of note: no marks, scratches, or anything else of the sort. Even if the image still looks like video, it's clear that a decent level of work went into getting it to look as good as possible.
The image is, again, not ideal in relation to what most would expect from an HD presentation, and the score I’ve given here does reflect that, but I really need to stress that this is how the film is supposed to look, and it's worth mentioning that it's clear a lot of work and care did go into this to make sure the film does look as it should. I still think it looks impressive for what it is.
Another Dogme restriction is that only live sound can be used, no post-production alterations allowed, something that led to Vinterberg having to get creative during moments that would usually call for post-production work, which he explains in one of the commentaries found in the set. At any rate, due to this restriction I wasn’t holding out much hope for the film’s audio (presented here in lossless PCM single-channel monaural) but, rather surprisingly, the audio sounds great! It’s sharp and clear, no distortion sounding to be present. Range and fidelity also aren’t bad, though there can be some reverberation at times, more than likely due to the setting. It’s still a bit limited by the original materials, but in all it sounds solid.
In an archival 1998 interview found in the features, director Vinterberg explains that the Dogme rules only apply to making the film and do not apply to the promotional or commercial aspects around the film after its completion. Even then, it still feels as though Criterion is going against the spirit of the Dogme movement by delivering an unbelievably packed two-disc special edition, but I’m glad they’ve seen fit to do so; the package offers one of their most comprehensive and engaging collection of features in a long while.
Despite the inherent shortcomings found in the film’s presentation Criterion still gives the film a lot of room to breathe on the first dual-layer disc (leading to a decent looking encode, all things considered), only including a couple of extras. The big one is an audio commentary featuring director Thomas Vinterberg, recorded in 2005 for a DVD special edition released in Denmark. It is presented here in Danish with optional English subtitles.
Much to my surprise, considering the film’s subject matter (and ignoring its many comic bits), the track ends up being quite a bit of fun, with the filmmaker sharing stories around the film’s unorthodox (at the time) production. He talks a little about the inspiration and the script writing process, then talks extensively about the actors and writing their characters to or against their own acting strengths. Some things happened by accident (like getting his American friend Gbatokai Dakinah to take a part in the film, which allowed Vinterberg to explore what he calls “Danish xenophobia”) but much to my surprise it does sound like the film was tightly scripted for the most part. Vinterberg also talks about what Dogme filmmaking entails, and how the rules forced him to be more creative, and come up with unusual solutions around some technical problems. For example, in relation to sound, which had to happen naturally with the visuals and not come from something done in post-production, some sound effects had to be accomplished right then and there, from smacking of objects to imitate punches, to twirling a microphone around to get an ethereal background sound effect. It’s a wonderful, very forthcoming commentary.
To accompany this, Criterion then includes a brand-new interview with Vinterberg, recorded in late 2021. The 18-minute discussion can be viewed as an addendum to the track, Vinterberg talking (in English) a little more about his influences before addressing how the success of The Celebration (a surprise to everyone, including him) may have led him astray in his following work. He then covers how he found his footing and voice again over a decade later. It’s good, concise, and honest discussion about his career up to this point.
The disc then closes with the film’s original Danish trailer, which opens with footage from Cannes before getting into the film itself.
The second dual-layer disc contains the remaining features, and there is a lot of ground to cover here. Criterion first includes two short films by the director: his 1993 student thesis film Last Round, followed by the 1995 short film The Boy Who Walked Backwards, running 33-minutes and 39-minute respectively. Both sort of deal with loss and regret, though in very different ways. Backwards focuses on a young boy who recently lost his older brother in a terrible accident. The family is looking to restart but the boy, who already suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, starts showing off some worse traits born out of the fear bad things happening if he doesn’t do things a certain way. At a point he becomes convinced that if he walks backwards, he can also turn back time and undo the tragedy.
The film is effective, and I think it handles the subject matter appropriately (though a nightmare sequence might be trying too hard) but I was more taken and surprised by his student film. It features Thomas Bo Larsen, from The Celebration, as a man wishing to have one last outing with his friends after being diagnosed with leukemia and given only a couple of months left to live. It’s a subject that’s been tackled ad nauseum to be sure, and it’s something you might expect from a student film, but I think what got me most about it was how polished and assured it was, managing to throw in some memorable and impactful scenes, including one where Larsen runs alongside a car in the street, and another where he and a friend question how long a minute actually is.
Sadly, Last Around has been sourced from a slightly rough VHS, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the only existing version. Backwards looks to come from a standard-definition source.
To delve a bit more into Dogme 95 and its rules, Criterion includes the 2002, 68-minute documentary The Purified, which features filmmakers Vinterberg, Lars von Trier, Kristian Levring, and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen (along with writer Mogens Rukov joining in remotely) talking about the movement, the reasons behind it (which are given through footage from the initial press conference around the movement), and the ten rules that a filmmaker must abide by for the film to be considered Dogme. This all makes for a great introduction to those unfamiliar, but the part that should prove most fascinating to everyone, whether familiar with the movement or not, is when the four directors sit around and talk about each other’s films, even accusing each other of possibly cheating, and they do this through watching sequences from their respective films or through behind-the-scenes footage. The documentary also goes through a few of the more notable films up to that point. A great inclusion.
There are then a number of archival features. There’s a 24-minute behind-the-scenes television program from 1998, which features some behind-the-scenes footage accompanied by interviews with members of the cast and crew. It’s pretty much what you’re expecting though worth watching, the actors sharing their own insights into what the Dogme style of filmmaking means for them as actors. Better are two 2005 featurettes created for a Danish DVD edition: “Celebration” in Retrospect, running 26-minutes, and Disclosure of “The Celebration,” running over 9-minutes. The former is a then-new making-of on the film featuring interviews with cast and crew members sharing their memories from the production and their surprise at how successful the film came to be. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the subject matter did worry many, and apparently the original script was a bit crasser in its humour, leading one unnamed actor to tell Vinterberg that a better write would have “shown restraint” (Vinterberg reveals who the actor was in the commentary). The latter video features Vinterberg recalling the story behind the inspiration for the film, which came from a call-in to a radio program he was listening to. There ends up being a fairly wild story behind all of this, though, with some twists and turns coming about after a journalist contacted Vinterberg years later about that original call-in. Honestly, there could be a movie in there somewhere, too.
A short program from 2003 called ADM:DOP features a 12-minute interview with director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle, who worked on a number of the Dogme features and then more mainstream features like 28 Days Later, which all used video equipment for their productions. The disc then closes with 45-minutes’ worth of deleted scenes. A good bulk of the material is probably just trims, and footage that did make it into the finished film is still included so the deleted sequences make more sense, but there are some interesting cuts, including a whole subplot around a friend of Christian’s (Ulrich Thomsen) that came to the party and then more footage from when Christian was out in the woods. In regards to the friend being cut out, I'm impressed at how they were able to trim that all out with losing needed footage as you can't tell in the finished film.
Vinterberg also provides an optional commentary (recorded in 2005 for the Danish DVD) to go alongside the scenes, again in Danish with optional English subtitles. He talks about why the footage was cut, which ranged from being confusing to simply just making characters look crazier than he wanted them to look. He does like some of the scenes on their own but addresses that they ultimately don’t really work in the film when all is said and done. He also expands on some of the technical aspects of the film, talking more about the advantages of shooting on video, the biggest being it was cheaper to shoot as much footage as he wanted, and he claims here they had somewhere between 60 and 80-hours’ worth of material. I’d say the scenes are worth watching on their own but do at least make sure to listen to the track.
(As a note, the order of the scenes is a bit weird and sticks out when watching them with the commentary: about 16-minutes into the deleted footage Vinterberg signs off before going to the next deleted scene where Vinterberg then welcomes you to the deleted scenes on the “bonus DVD” for the film. The commentary appears to match whatever sequence it's playing over, so things haven't been mixed up, but Criterion may be presenting the scenes in a different order than how they appeared on the original DVD, or the DVD broke them out differently.)
[UPDATE: To continue on about the deleted scenes, I see now that a Dogme DVD boxset was released in Denmark in 2005 by Sandrew Metronome, which included this film, The Idiots, Mifune, and The King is Alive, each film receiving their own disc with their own features. For The Celebration, about 16-minutes' worth of deleted scenes were included on the disc for the film, while a fifth bonus DVD featured more deleted material. Criterion has just simply combined all of the material together here.]
The included booklet then features an excellent essay on the film and its impact, written by Michael Koresky. This then leads to one of the more clever aspects of this release: the art design. The booklet cover ends up recreating the Dogme pamphlet handed out during the original 1995 announcement, which can be seen in The Purified: it’s red with Dogme declaration written on one side and then the rules written on the inside. The only shortcoming here is that this “pamphlet” is stapled onto the booklet, and not presented as a separate insert. The “cover” design also fits the spirit of the Dogme movement, going for a no-frills look, which can be seen here. Basically, it looks like a clear Scanavo case with a label attached to identify the film. The booklet and discs, which both have a plain white background with a simple font, can then be seen. The label effect is created thanks to a clear plastic insert in place of a standard paper one. The back and spine are an opaque white. It’s a really cool design, perfect for the film, and I hope Criterion does something similar with any future Dogme films they release.
In the end, Criterion have really gone the extra mile with this release, jamming in as much content as they can around the film and Dogme 95. For anyone looking to better understand the movement, this release should really answer all of your questions.
Criterion starts off the year with an early candidate for their best release. The presentation is held back because of how the film was made, but it’s presented here about as well as it could possibly ever be, and Criterion loads this edition with some great material around the film and the Dogme 95 movement. An incredibly easy recommendation.