Susanne Bier's powerful film AFTER THE WEDDING (****) now cements her in my mind as one of the major filmmakers currently working. This is only the second film by her that I have seen (the other being last year's fantastic drama THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE) but I know talent when I see it, and Bier's got a ton of it. After finishing AFTER THE WEDDING, I added the rest of her available filmography into my Netflix queue; I can't wait to see what else she's done. AFTER THE WEDDING, which was technically considered a 2006 release but actually made it to U.S. movie screens in March of 2007, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007 and I'm not surprised. It's a brilliant, funny, sad, and ultimately touching domestic drama that is frequently unpredictable and overwhelmingly honest in its emotions. The sneaky narrative sometimes makes you feel like the film is about to fly off the rails but it never does. By the end of the film, the script's complexities completely reveal themselves and it's then that you realize how deep the film has cut. Sometimes the phrase "melodrama" can suggest that a film is sappy or cliche, and while the beats and plot points of AFTER THE WEDDING might be considered "melodramatic," the film never teeters over the edge into cheesy sentimentality, which it could have in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. In fact, the way that Bier upends your expectations and toys with the cliches of the "domestic drama" genre is one of the big reasons why AFTER THE WEDDING ends up in the realm of masterpiece.
Working with co-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, Bier's story pivots on a Danish man named Jacob (the great Mads Mikkelsen), who's working in India at a children's orphanage that's desperately in need of financial help. He receives word from Denmark (he hasn't been back in almost 20 years) that a billionaire businessman named Jorgen (Rolf Laasgard, in a tour de force performance) is interested in donating a sizable sum of money to Jacob's orphanage. Jacob heads back to his homeland and meets with Jorgen, showing him a video of how poor the kids are in India. Jorgen seems like he's ready to commit to helping, but he tells Jacob that he needs some more time to figure out if the orphanage is the charitable cause that he'd like to help. Jorgen then unexpectedly invites Jacob to his daughter's wedding, which is set to happen the very next day. Jacob reluctantly accepts the invite and the next day, shows up at Jorgen's palatial estate for the ceremony. Once there, Jacob recognizes a pretty woman named Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen, very strong), who happens to be married to Jorgen. And, as the title suggests, some interesting things occur after the wedding. From here, I am hesitant to divulge any more plot information. AFTER THE WEDDING constantly surprised me with the direction of its story and I could never have predicted how it would all turn out, even though the pieces were right in front of me.
Bier and Jensen's tight script packs twist after twist and reveal after reveal into a neatly coiled chain of events. Bier's eclectic directorial style, replete with extreme close-ups and shots that linger for an extra second or two, amps up the tension; the hand-held cinematography by lenser Morten Soborg really brings the viewer into the film, allowing you to get as close to the characters as possible. The film has a ragged yet beautiful visual design, complemented by a beautifully subtle musical score by the composer Johan Soderqvist and lush production design by Soren Skjaer, especially during the scenes in India. All of the performances are, in a word, remarkable. Mikkelsen is glum but compassionate, and a very interesting choice for the main character (he and Bier have worked together in the past). There is a tender, quiet quality that he exudes that isn't normally seen in the work of most Hollywood superstars. As I mentioned earlier, Laasgard, who is the film's trickiest character, is extraordinary; his ability to have you loving and hating him at the same time is a testament not only to the carefully layered writing but to Laasgard's sensitive depiction of a man in the middle of a serious personal crisis. AFTER THE WEDDING builds an impressive head of steam as it patiently moves towards its emotionally shattering conclusion. By the time that all of the plot threads have worked themselves out, there will be no way that you haven't been emotionally moved by the proceedings. This is a great film, and I look forward to catching up with the rest of Bier's work.