In the spring of 1998, when The Celebration premiered, it was so unusual to see vulnerable men grappling with trauma on-screen—let alone articulating that struggle—that Thomas Vinterberg’s second feature seemed like a broadcast from some alien civilization. Seeing it in the theater, I felt as if I’d been slugged in the gut. Today, even in a wider culture that has grown more open to discussions of mental-health struggles, it’s still a film that can drop your jaw and leave you breathless. One way to appreciate The Celebration now is as a rare example in contemporary cinema of a great male-centered melodrama, one in which a young man’s public reckoning with his own trauma cuts through the very fabric of white Western culture, where power is often predicated on the keeping up of appearances. Aesthetically, one may not immediately think of melodrama, an antirealist mode known in part for its expressionistic flourishes, when considering the grubby, rough-hewn texture and style of The Celebration. Vinterberg’s film, after all, kick-started Dogme 95, a cinematic movement premised on aggressive authenticity. But—setting aside melodrama’s historical association with women and maternal sacrifice—many of the genre’s recurrent narrative and ideological elements are identifiable here: the dramatization of emotional anguish, the simultaneous triumph of morality and corruption of innocence, the centrality of class, the constraints of familial legacies, the suffocation of domesticity.
Watching the film, one is as walloped by the unabashedly theatrical manner with which Vinterberg divulges his taboo subject as by the narrative revelations themselves. There was always a grandstanding theatricality to Dogme 95, though: after all, the movement’s manifesto—of which Vinterberg and Lars von Trier were the writers and first signatories; other filmmakers, including Kristian Levring and Lone Scherfig and the American enfant terrible Harmony Korine, came aboard later—turned out to have been an act of instant self-mythologization for its brash young Danish originators. Dogme 95 was about putting cinematic rules in place ahead of the coming digital revolution, which promised to “democratize” filmmaking. The strictures that the movement laid out implied a need to keep the truthfulness of cinema intact: the movies made within them should be not merely reflective of reality but mired in it, all the better to rid cinema of the “bourgeois romanticism” of the concept of the auteur, according to the manifesto. The rules were so draconian that they seemed to intentionally flirt with corniness: no artificial lighting, no music on the soundtrack, no camera dollies or cranes (indeed, no placing of the camera anywhere but in the hands of its operator), no props brought in from outside the shooting location. (Vinterberg claimed in a 2015 interview that the document took “half an hour to write.”) Any deviation from these “simple” restrictions would inherently cast suspicion on the authenticity of the result. But by de-emphasizing so many cinematic conventions, these films would quite naturally still call attention to themselves as creations, just with swagger and flourish recast as spareness and rigidity. Because The Celebration foregrounds its own artificiality in this way, it is perhaps not so counterintuitive after all to invoke melodrama when discussing it.