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celebration

This subtitled Danish film is described on the box as a “viciously funny satire.”  Well, okay, but I wouldn’t want anyone to watch it with the expectation of laughing.

It’s kind of in the same genre as The Exterminating Angel, and Savages – where a bunch of high-class people are prevented from leaving a social occasion. It just goes on and on and becomes the dinner party from hell. Same genre too as Jacob’s Ladder, The Business of Fancy Dancing (to name only two that come immediately to mind) – where a scene may or may not be part of the narrative, the “real” story.  It might also be a hallucination of how someone wishes things would be, or how they could have been or would have been, or how they were on some archetypal, mythical level.

It’s also a prime illustration of how European cinema is different.  This thing starts off slow, you get lots and lots of character delineation, but no real clue about what’s going on except it’s some tycoon’s 60th birthday and the whole family is in the process of gathering.  So far it all seems kind of pointless.  An American film would have begun with artistically morphed footage of the dad molesting the twin children, starting off with a bang, right under the credits.  “Put the fire up front” is more of an American concept – it works well, but this slow approach works great too, if you’re willing to invest some attention and patience.

Still, I almost gave up on it – I think what kept me hooked was Michael’s outrageous behavior.  Then after a while, Helene started to captivate me – not what the character did, so much as the actress herself.  Great face.

And it becomes clear that another sibling, Linda, has recently killed herself.  So everybody’s tiptoeing around that, and apprehensive about what this loose cannon Michael is going to do because, knowing him, he is sure to find a way to ruin things.

But as it turns out, quiet, mild, reasonable Christian is the one who drops the bomb.  Standing to give a speech at the birthday dinner, he asks Dad to pick – he has a speech in each hand.  (You gotta wonder what the other speech said.  If the father had chosen that one, were they both the same anyway?)  Christian accuses the father of sexually abusing him and his sister when they were young.

Helene clinches it by reading Linda’s suicide note to the group.

The house staff contributes to the trauma by stealing everybody’s car keys so they all have to stay and witness the trouble.

Most memorable line of dialogue:  Christian says to his father “I’ve never understood why you did it,” and the answer is, “It was all you were good for.”

Michael beats the crap out of father and finishes up by pissing on him.  It’s a relief to finally understand the anger of Michael.  He’s always known something was wrong in the family but could never get anybody to talk about it.  Maybe a little jealousy because he knows the twins were chosen for something he was left out of…..however, even he is not aware of this.

The final scene is a true work of art.  Everybody is gathered around the table for a sunny breakfast. Faces are soft and relaxed.   Helene is not a tortured, aging wild child, just a pretty lady.   Michael is still an obnoxious asshole, but not a truly hostile or violent one.  The father has one of the grandchildren on his knee.

All this is what Christian hallucinates when unconscious, or maybe a kind of group hallucination, shared among the siblings, of what their family life could have been. Here’s the way it should have been.

The father apologizes, and says he understands that none of them is ever going to want to see him again.  He says, “You’ll always be my children – and I have loved you and love you, no matter where in the world you are or what you do.”  Just what everybody wants to hear from his parents.  Now we know for sure this scene is a fantasy.

The father addresses Christian: “You fought a good fight, my boy.” Even in Christian’s own fantasy there is ambiguity. This line from his dad seems to be a compliment, but carries two stings in its tail.  First, it implies that Christian has lost:  “Good game” is, after all, something a winner says to a loser.  Christian lost because, while he may not have had the will to kill his father himself, he knew that giving Michael the information would get the job done.  So Christian is not as righteous as maybe he likes to think.  Also, there’s the sexual double entendre, as in “My butt-boy.”

Michael suggests that the father leave so the rest of them can eat their breakfast. The old man asks his wife if she’s coming. “I’ll stay here,” she says. Two layers: indicates she’s on the side of the rest of the family, united in shunning him.  And, she’s not going to commit suicide or die of grief on his account.  Dad exits through the patio doors where the flood of illumination is coming from – he goes into the light, get it?

Their names, as are appropriate in this genre, are symbolic –
Linda – beautiful.  At least her twisted father found her so, and later her brother
Christian – the one who tries to be forgiving and good. One who has fought the good fight, as even his father finally recognizes, in his fantasy anyway.
Helene – a character who makes her mark on history
Michael – an archangel – didn’t he slay a dragon or a demon something? Is Michael associated with vengeance in church mythology?

We’re not sure if Christian might also have made it with Linda. If he did, it was obviously consensual. Still wrong, but at least not rape or exploitation. Maybe it was just a fantasy – either way, good old straight arrow Christian would feel just as guilty anyway.

Or maybe most of the movie was Christian’s hallucination or fantasy. Maybe he chickened out and never read the accusatory speech at all. Maybe he did read the other speech, and it was different. Maybe the whole thing never happened.

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