Humble Guests at the Celebration: An Interview with Thomas Vinterberg and Ulrich Thomsen

By Wood, Robert Paul | CineAction, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Humble Guests at the Celebration: An Interview with Thomas Vinterberg and Ulrich Thomsen


Wood, Robert Paul, CineAction


Introduction

Of the fifteen films I saw in the Toronto festival I have chosen to write on three of the four I most loved and admired. The fourth, Flowers of Shanghai, the latest masterpiece of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is too complex and demanding to be discussed responsibly after only one viewing (and when can we expect a second opportunity?. I am convinced that Hou is one of cinema's major figures, comparable to, for example, Mizoguchi, Ophuls or Renoir, but not one of his many films is currently available in North America).

While considering what to say about The Celebration, The Hole and The Apple, and working in the context of an issue whose main theme is the New Wave and its legacy, I was greatly struck by an apparent common debt (the only thing, apart from excellence, that the three films share): would any of them have been quite what they are if the New Wave had not existed? Thomas Vinterberg's stunning film, produced within (just about!) the guidelines of Dogma 95 (1), offers particularly interesting parallels with the New Wave's genesis, a striking case of history repeating itself. In essentials, Dogma 95 is less important for its actual demands (which, as Vinterberg agrees, could easily become repressive if adhered to literally) than for its assault upon the conventions of contemporary mainstream cinema and its corresponding demand for a new freedom. Does this not instantly evoke both the tone and the specific focus of the manifestos, the `agitprop', of the critics of Cahiers du Cinema in the late 50s who subsequently became known worldwide as Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard, Rivette... -- their demands as critics made flesh in the early films, on the cusp of the 50s/60s? We must hope that The Celebration represents the beginning of a Danish New Wave, its 400 Coups, its A Bout de Souffle. It is quite unlike either, but it has grown out of a similar impulse to rebel against the dominant tendencies of the cinematic Establishment. Appropriately, the theme of the film is liberation, and the notion of liberation is enacted throughout in its style, its pervasive sense of freshness, of excitement, of challenge. It must be added, however, that the situation today is very much worse, the enemies of liberation far more powerful. In a world in which global corporate capitalism, in all its quasi-totalitarian brutality, controls, not just cinema, but every other aspect of our lives, any celebration must be tentative and muted.

We live in an age in which the concept of `family values' is at last in question, together (inevitably) with the concept of `family' itself. It seems to me no longer a `given' that: (a) the family should necessarily be the nucleus of social organization; (b) children should be raised by their biological parents; and (c) the most fulfilling form of relationship is the family's basis and mainstay, the (nominally) monogamous heterosexual couple. The proposition that our traditional model, the patriarchal nuclear family, has been by now thoroughly discredited (even as it still drags doggedly on, from habit or inertia) seems to me no longer disputable. The vast and difficult question of our culture is, What is to replace it? Hopefully not another `model', misperceived as `natural' when it is merely `normal'. But it remains to be seen what disparate forms of social organization are workable and practical and capable of coexisting. Numerous recent films (and indeed films from the past -- The Reckless Moment springs to mind) have raised this question implicitly, but none more eloquently or passionately or urgently than Thomas Vinterberg's Festen (The Celebration). None (and The Celebration must be included in this) has so far attempted more than a very tentative answer. What, for example, exactly are the implications of the two sisters walking off together at the end of The Daytrippers?

It is obvious that the power structures that pervade and define our culture have their origin within the structures of the patriarchal family; it follows that there can be no effective or lasting transformation of our culture's social/political structures that is not preceded or accompanied by the transformation of the family. …

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