Rules of the Game

Stripped bare: Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen in Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration

The Celebration
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

The Disenchanted
U Film Society, starts Friday

A movie about the virtues of speaking one's piece--or, as the case may be, spouting off--The Celebration comes complete with its own verbose manifesto. Three years ago, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg collaborated with his countryman Lars von Trier to create "Dogma 95," a filmmaking collective designed as "a rescue operation to counter certain tendencies in film today"--among them "the auteur concept, makeup, illusions, and dramaturgical predictability." Participating directors in the Dogma group are required to sign a "Vow of Chastity" in observance of 10 stylistic commandments: Thou shalt not shoot on sets; nor in black and white; nor with tripods or filters; nor on any subject that contains "superficial action." ("Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur," according to the pledge.)

Just who do these aesthetes think they're kidding? As the premiere opus out of the Dogma collective (von Trier's forthcoming The Idiots is the second), Vinterberg's The Celebration is founded on a cheeky display of cinephilic self-promotion, one that appears even more immodest for implicitly claiming kinship with the treatises of the French New Wave. Accordingly, the image of the ornate Dogma plaque that precedes the two films inspired giggles, boos, and hisses (and scattered applause) at Cannes. But in the case of both movies, the arrogance is earned and the ends justify the means.

The Celebration's audacity extends to Vinterberg's dizzying deployment of a handheld, Hi-8 camcorder for the full length of the movie. Meanwhile, its story of a Danish man's assault upon his family's stifling manners reflects the film's own insouciant breach of decorum. The celebration of the title is a black-tie birthday party held at a palatial hotel in honor of the inn's owner, Helge (Henning Moritzen), who is turning 60. The entire extended clan comes to pay their respects to the remote patriarch, including his three surviving children: the woefully unhappy Helene (Paprika Steen), who's careful to sneak a few puffs of a joint before joining the party; the foul-tempered Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), who's desperate for any excuse to pick on his poor wife (Helle Dolleris); and the unmarried Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), a workaholic restaurateur who's reeling from the recent suicide of his twin sister. The family favorite, Christian is entrusted to lead the dinner toasts, which he does by launching into a hilariously abrupt revelation of the father's ugly sexual proclivities. As the ice is broken, one grotesque confession gives way to another. Soon, this deeply repressed family begins to relish the purging of its many dark secrets.

While The Celebration lacks the intellectual rigor of von Trier's Breaking the Waves, it, too, uses the emotional outburst as a tool for self-actualization (and intense melodrama). Which isn't to say that everything's a breeze once these wounded souls open up and start talking. The appearance of Helene's black boyfriend (Gbatokai Dakinah) brings out the family's deep-seated racism, and the insensitive Michael suddenly sees fit to protect the clan against Christian's increasingly indignant speeches, seemingly to curry favor with the father who has spurned him. As Vinterberg's relentlessly whirling camera stirs things up even further, one of the remarkable qualities of The Celebration is its refusal to make snap judgments about the characters: All are equally honest and pained, none are without blame or good reason.

Clearly, the dysfunctional family is the reigning cinematic subject of the decade--and, so far, most of this year's entries in the genre have sought to prove their realistic approach to the subject by being supremely nihilistic. Conversely, Vinterberg's film argues the benefits of dismantling the father's order--to such an extent that it practically reads as a prescription for patricide. By proposing a constructive solution to its characters' crises, The Celebration is the un-Happiness: a fantasy of what it might feel like to piss on the conventions that keep us dangerously silent and unaware. At the end of its drunken bash, the family is in shambles--and thus in perfect condition to start over.

If Breaking the Waves drew from Godard's jittery studies of women scorned, the so-called New New Wave films of Benoit Jacquot suggest a more psychologically astute Truffaut. Jacquot's intimate yet unsentimental A Single Girl (1995) observed 90 minutes of "real time" in the work- and love-life of an ordinary jeune fille. His similarly riveting The Disenchanted (made in 1990 but just released stateside to capitalize on the auteur's recent acclaim) likewise follows a lanky, ponytailed Parisian girl as she deals with a succession of men over the course of three days. Not for nothing does the 17-year-old Beth (Judith Godreche) refer to the first of these guys as "Whatsisname." In interviews, Jacquot has described his male characters as foils--and, to the extent that they compel his heroines into somewhat compromising positions, these nameless suitors might also be called the director's assistants.

Borderline-intrusive from the get-go, The Disenchanted opens in bed with a close-up of the sleeping Beth taken from Whatsisname's point of view. As she slowly rises, recounting a dream about a young hooker (foreshadowing her own fate, perhaps?), her lover (Malcom Conrath) dares her to prove her affections by having sex with the homeliest guy she can find (shades of Waves). Thus challenged, the fearlessly inquisitive Beth proceeds to take control of her own private soap opera--while remaining in the constant company of men. Rubbing up against a geeky boy (Francis Mage) in a discotheque, she invites herself home with him, and then, after he tries to kiss her, she flees with his book on ancient Egypt and sells it for pocket money. Later she exchanges philosophies of life with a 40-year-old writer (Marcel Bozonnet) who'd protected her from Whatsisname, and consents to visit "Sugardad" (Yvan Desny), an older gent who's been subsidizing her poor family in trade for private time with her ailing mother (Therese Liotard).

Appearing the opposite of The Celebration's vertiginous visual design, Jacquot's beguilingly simple shooting style nearly obscures the queasiness in his tale of a reluctant Lolita who comes of age through what amounts to turning tricks. But whether or not the undeniably prurient material seems to cross the line into bad taste, the director's support for his young heroine is palpable, as the final, sympathetic scenes allow Beth the chance to end her string of bad dates and start anew. Clocking in at a lean 78 minutes, The Disenchanted carries the seductive appeal of a short story that's too complicated for its length, a compulsive page-turner that leaves the reader engrossed and longing for more. How many current films can you say that about?

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