Though movies in general find themselves related more congenially to short stories, they sometimes, at their best, can find a way to give us a whole novel in a couple of hours of screen time. Characters who, in a novel, take life only in the reader's imagination, and relationships that normally require a novel's depth to fully plumb, can sometimes appear in all their complexity fully formed on screen. Instead of wysiwyg -- what you see (on screen) is what you get -- we in the film audience see and comprehend the kinds of subtleties and overtones that normally appear only on the printed page: the elisions and inferences, the barely felt textures that are the essence of good writing. We come to understand and respond to the characters on screen as we do to those in a novel.
There's no one genre of such films, anymore than there's a single genre of novels that gives readers such a complete world; a few film examples that come to mind are Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," Bergman's "Persona," Truffaut's "Jules and Jim," Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff," Coppola's "The Godfather." These films have little in common stylistically or thematically, and although some are made from novels, some are not, and in any case they communicate as films, not translated writings.
I put Thomas Vinterberg's 1998 Danish film "The Celebration" -- which is an original script -- in this group. This dark, witty study of a family's lifetime dynamic takes place over one afternoon, evening, night, and morning, as everyone gathers at the family estate to celebrate the patriarch's 60th birthday. He is a portly, benign man (Henning Moritzen), with three grown children and a wife who adores him. But when one of the children, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), now a restaurateur in France, gets up to make the first toast, he accuses his father of unspeakable acts toward him and his now-dead twin sister. The evening grows darker and darker, as the film gradually exposes each life and person through what they say and do at the party. Christian's older brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) and his younger sister Helene (Paprika Steen) both have much to reveal. Michael is an abusive, racist bigot, Helene has declared her independence by taking a succession of non-white lovers. Christian -- whom we meet in the opening long-shot as he walks alone down the road to the estate, talking on the cell phone -- has withdrawn from all emotional contacts with other people.
But as the film takes us through myriad moments and collisions, in and around the estate, it also gives us a wonderfully ironic view of the events, so that we find ourselves laughing out loud at moments that might otherwise be tragic. And no one is a caricature, nor sketchily drawn. At the end, in a kind of coda, even the racist Michael finds some maturity in himself. We have lived and suffered and been frightened along with the people in the film, but like them we will emerge from this cathartic moment with a greater understanding of our lives.
Vinterberg, who cowrote the script with Mogens Rukov, who has collaborated with him before, shows in this third feature an amazing sureness of style and the ability to suit the technique to the material. The film moves by accretion of detail that comes from his insistence on using only hand-held cameras and available light. It is, I must say, a perfect choice for this film. (But let me add that in one of the stupidest decisions ever made by otherwise bright and talented filmmakers, he and Lars Von Trier ["Breaking the Waves"] have created and signed a 'Dogma 95' manifesto, which says that they will refuse to use any 'artificial' means of making films; that is, no tripods, no lights, no dollies, and I imagine if they could get away with it no actors, film, or audience either. It's like saying 'I can do this thing with one hand tied behind my back,' and then tying the hand behind the back. And yet, I must admit that in this case, with this story, the technique works brilliantly.)
But not always. One reason (out of many) that "Breaking the Waves" was so uneven was Von Trier's insistence on hand-held shots when they only detracted from what he was trying to convey. I'll hope that Vinterberg outgrows the Dogma 95 mentality, broadens his palette, and keeps making films as powerful as "The Celebration."