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Friday, Oct. 12, 2007
'After the Wedding'
In Scandinavia it can get pretty intense
By KAORI SHOJI
"After the Wedding" is about the quiet brutality of love and the manipulative motives that lie behind the act of giving.
Directed by Denmark's Susanne Bier and written by Scandinavian screenwriter extraordinaire Anders Thomas Jensen (who had already written and directed a TV miniseries in high school before launching a prolific career as screenwriter/filmmaker), the film is by turns tender and lacerating, frighteningly cynical and disarmingly naive. The emotions are so dense you find yourself getting lost in a single, protracted sequence of tears and a confession, though, in contrast, the dialogue is concise and blunt.
From start to finish the film entices and intrigues, but it is strangely unpleasurable — Bier and Jensen are only interested in making us think, perchance squirm. In this way "After the Wedding" is loyal to the Dogme 95 doctrine (a filmmaking manifesto that endorses brutal honesty over mindless entertainment, among other things), drawn up and relentlessly dictated by that Danish disciplinarian of cinema Lars Von Trier. Still, there are many moments of redemption and hope spawned by mature compromise; the film is certainly kinder (to both the audience and the characters) than anything Von Trier has done.
It opens on scenes of a chaotic slum in India, where Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) is in charge of a derelict orphanage home. He's been offered generous funding from Danish business tycoon Jergen (Rolf Lassgard), on one condition — that Jacob go to Copenhagen and meet with Jergen in person. Himself a Dane, Jacob left his home country 20 years ago and never returned, so the thought of going now fills him with dread. But he has no choice; the orphanage is literally on its last legs and badly in need of money.
With great reluctance, Jacob dons a suit, boards a plane and finds himself in a Copenhagen hotel suite from which, after settling in, a limousine whisks him to Jergen's office. Jacob is armed with thick folders of documents and videos of the orphanage, but Jergen waves all business aside and urges Jacob to attend the wedding of his daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen) the next day. The thought of going to this billionaire's home (which he finds out is a splendid chateau situated in a vast park where deer roam freely) and having to witness his conspicuous wealth gives Jacob the creeps, but he assents. What else can he do, since Jergen hints that failure to attend means no signature on that dotted line.
Once there, Jacob discovers that Jergen's beautiful wife, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), is in fact, his ex-girlfriend of two decades ago and Anna is not Jergen's real daughter, but his own. Caught in a turmoil of elation, regret and rage, Jacob is all set to punch Jergen in the face till the latter reminds him — expertly blending sincerity and slight menace — that if Jacob wants the funding he must ingratiate himself to the family.
This includes being nice to Helene and taking her out to dinner, getting to know Anna, and even befriending Jergen's twin 8-year-old sons. Defeated, Jacob sticks around. Besides, it's nice to talk with Helene again and see that Anna needs her real father to guide her on the rough paths of marriage and life. Though he only planned to stay for one week, at the end of it he's calling the orphanage to say this could take longer than expected. A lot longer.
Each of the characters are so open-wound-vulnerable it's easy to get lost in their problems, to clench your fists in indignation or heartache. Certainly Bier plays up the melodrama to full effect, going for unabashed close-ups of people weeping, screaming, spluttering, getting all red from anger or pale from anxiety.
Head shots seem to be her forte and perhaps to stress this, there are many scenes of Jergen with one or the other of the cast, seated in his study, the lens right in their face while all around them are the heads of deer and antelope stuffed and hung on the wall with somewhat grotesque grandioseness (Hunted from Jergen's own park? The story never makes that clear).
Jergen is a hulking mass of fascinating contradictions; he's very gentle with his family, always going above and beyond to protect them from any of life's unpleasantries, but face-to-face with Jacob he drops the benevolence and struts his power like a control-freak dictator. ("You think you're God!" stammers Jacob.)
You keep waiting for Jacob to tear up the contract and tell Jergen to f**k off, but instead, you must witness the gradual withering of Jacob's will, and his almost palpable sense of relief at being back in a rich, clean, air-conditioned city where his newly discovered daughter is happy to keep him company or come over for drinks after a fight with her husband. Jergen senses all this unfolding, and professes himself content with the measures he has taken to keep his family happy.
The lengths people will go for love and the ways love has of trapping, ensnaring and depriving its victims of freedom — after "After the Wedding," such thoughts race through your heart and leave you with a little, helpless shudder of fear and joy.