Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” – more on the ‘power of relics’

Tonight in Cinema Studies we saw Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, the first film that adhered to the Dogma 95 ‘vow of chastity’. Here’s the plot taken directly from Wikipedia (spoiler alert):

Respected family patriarch and businessman Helge (Henning Moritzen) is celebrating his 60th birthday at their family-run hotel. Gathered together are his loyal wife Elsa, his daughter Helene, his sons Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), and other guests. Christian’s twin sister, Linda, had recently killed herself at the hotel.

Before the celebration dinner, Helene finds Linda’s suicide note, but hides it. Later, during dinner, Christian makes a speech to the family in which he accuses Helge of sexually abusing him and his late sister, Linda. Helge’s family and friends initially dismiss the accusations as absurd, a joke, or a figment of Christian’s imagination. During a toast, Elsa makes a series of back-handed compliments towards her children, accusing Christian of having an overactive imagination as a child, and asking him to apologize. Christian responds by accusing her of interrupting Helge during a rape. Michael ejects Christian from the hotel.

At the end of the film, Christian’s accusations are confirmed when the younger sister, Helene, reads Linda’s suicide note. Linda’s note states that she had begun to have dreams in which her father was molesting her again, which led to her suicide. Helge admits to the abuse, saying that it was all Christian was good for.

The next morning, Helge admits the abuse of his children and the destruction of his family. Michael nevertheless sends him away from the table, pointing out that he has to go so that they can have breakfast.

Right when Helene takes out the suicide note I was reminded of my post on La Notte when Lidia pulls out an old love letter from Giovanni. The power of the written word, of something physical, is so powerful it becomes a form of testimony. Despite Christian’s status as the favorite son and most dependable, his claims are questioned all throughout the film until they’re verified by his dead sister’s letter. While the short letter doesn’t delineate in graphic detail the abuse that occurred for years, unlike the videotape in Primal Fear, our imaginations are able to fill in the gaps. The letter is so potent that even the abusive father stops trying to derail the truth from getting out. We don’t dare question the voice of the dead, maybe it’s a form of tribute to them.

And yet we’re somehow aware of the gap between the relic and ‘the truth’. The monuments that ancient civilizations have left for us are not only the means by which we understand them but also how they wanted to be remembered. The details that were left out, that lie in the shadow of the past, our imaginations can only illuminate.


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