Susanne Bier's "After the Wedding" Opposites Attract By Howard Feinstein

in 18th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Howard Feinstein

Danish director Susanne Bier’s brooding portraits of fractured families include Freud Leaving Home (Freud flyttar hemifran, 1991), and, with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, Open Hearts (Elsker dig for evigt, 2002) and Brothers (Brodre, 2004). The filmmaker punctuates her and Jensen’s most recent work, After the Wedding (Efter brylluppet, 2006) — this year’s Danish submission for Best Foreign Language Film — with jarring inserts of parched plants, shot from below as they strain toward the sky, as well as the wide-open eyes of recent roadkill. Their significance is, thankfully, oblique, but one finds a clue in the recurring refrain from the Weather Girls’ rush-of-a-song, “It’s Raining Men.” The film’s two conflicted male protagonists are, in their effect on the more passive females in their lives, more like deluges than sprinkles. They nurture up to a point, but they also erode the psychic energy of the women. Headstrong and arrogant, they are like bulls in a china shop—not as much as Brothers’ war-damaged Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) upon his return to Danish suburbia, but they thrash about nonetheless, often heedless of the effects of their actions.

After the Wedding is a study in oppositions, so much so that the two men, poles apart on a surface level, are really doubles of each other. Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen, winner of the FIPRESCI jury’s Best Actor prize) has not been in Denmark for 20 years, choosing instead to devote himself to street kids in Bombay. An idealist who has been unsuccessful in getting many of his Indian projects off the ground, he has a quasi-adopted 8-year-old son, Pramod (Neeral Mulchandani), among the orphans he lives with and teaches. That he is running away from all responsibilities on the home front is a given. In India, he had had a drug and drinking problem and, apparently, trouble keeping his zipper up.

Jorgen (Swedish actor Rolf Lassgard) is an extremely wealthy self-made man and alcoholic who lives with his younger wife, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), 20-year-old daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), and 8-year-old twin boys in a huge mansion on an isolated estate outside Copenhagen — far from the crowds, bustle, and lively textures that Bier and cinematographer Morten Soborg capture so well in India, where everything has a yellow tint. In Denmark the coloring is flatter, washed out. Each man is caught between two worlds: Jacob, staid Danish society and unruly India; Jorgen, his working-class roots and the status and power that big bucks confer.

Reluctantly, Jacob returns to Denmark to raise money from Jorgen, whom he doesn’t know but who has tentatively offered to keep his beloved Bombay project afloat. Jorgen invites him to Anna’s wedding, where he runs into Helene, who turns out to be the girlfriend who had left him in India 20 years before on account of his infidelities and general hedonism. Once Anna announces at the post-nuptial dinner that she appreciates Jorgen in spite of the fact that he is not her biological father, Jacob puts two and two together and realizes that she is the daughter he never knew about. (Don’t the Danes adore testimonials in their movies! Harking back to Dreyer, through Vinterberg’s Celebration [Festen, 1996], they are a staple of confession and confrontation in Danish cinema. Bier gives us a second dose in the form of Jorgen’s birthday dinner.)

The revelation sets in motion a battle of wills. Jorgen is an aggressive control freak, and Lassgard’s corporeal countenance dominates almost every frame in which he appears. The effect is echoed by the mounted deer heads on the walls of his high-ceilinged home, which hover over him and his family, the camera again going for occasional close-ups of the lifeless animals’ eyeballs; it’s the luxe version of Norman Bates’s office. The encounters are not coincidental: Jorgen has set them up to bribe Jacob into the fold in order to reconfigure a nuclear family that will outlast him. Jacob, on the other hand, is small and tightly wound, and Mikkelsen, a former dancer whose perfect stride reflects years of training, fits neatly into the strictures of the frame, even when he seethes with pent-up anger and frustration over the familial situation. (His magnificent face, half of it protruding cheekbone, has the uncanny ability to shift from cherubic to demonic. It’s no wonder that he was cast as Bond’s nemesis Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.)

Though without financial resources, the proud Jacob is as stubborn as Jorgen. Initially, feeling that the Mabuse-like corporate executive is attempting to manipulate his and his own family’s future, he resists the latter’s offer of a $12 million fund for the Indian children. But when Anna, his newly discovered biological daughter, needs his emotional support (her new husband cheated on her, just as Jacob did on Helene), he decides to compensate for the duties he has shirked for years and remain in his homeland, controlling the fund with Anna. Bier and Jensen gently puncture the myth of the altruistic Scandinavian abroad; keep your own house in order before playing Hans Blix. Simultaneously, a humbled Jorgen realizes that he can play God only up to a point. Even as he charts out his family’s destiny, he recognizes his mortality. In fact, he becomes angry, a quality he admired in Jacob at their first meeting. They are unlikely soulmates.

Unlike the Dogma-certified Open Hearts, Bier here uses jump cuts sparingly, in particularly charged moments. They rupture the narrative just enough to increase the unease factor in uneasy situations. The device works well with the chilling, melancholic score by Johan Soderqvist. And, in the Danish scenes, she will suddenly have Jacob or Jorgen move frantically room to room, exacerbating the unsettling mood. Once again, Bier dramatically deploys eyes, the human eyes of a character in extreme close-up staring intensely at one of others, to heighten the tension. (Analogies to cinematic voyeurism might seem clichéd, but such an emphasis on the act of seeing does implicate the spectator in the fiction.) Such tactics create a desire in the viewer for a quiet resolution to the psychological and emotional battles (including those between Helene and each of the men). Bier leads us there, but the ride is nerve racking.

As well-crafted and moving as After the Wedding is, and as sincere I believe Bier and Jensen to be, I do have some ideological reservations. When Jacob chooses to remain in Denmark to be near his daughter (not to mention Helene and the twins), he more or less turns his back on Pramod, his “son” in Bombay. Oh, he does return to India to invite the boy to join him in Copenhagen, an “opportunity” the savvy kid refuses (“I like it here”), but the implication is that blood is thicker than water. The little brown child is discarded for a spoiled, empty-headed heiress who is only technically his progeny. (He never knew that Helene was pregnant when she left him.) And the fact that the platinum blond hair on the twins looks as if it was pulled out of a German propaganda film of the ’30s or ’40s only adds to the disparity. But this is merely a quibble. After the Wedding is one of the best films of the past year.