AFTER THE WEDDING (EFTER BRYLLUPPET) (Susanne Bier, 2006)
Faced with an enormous budgetary crisis, Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) departs for Copenhagen to secure funding for the orphanage he manages in India. His potential benefactor is Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), a man whose opulent lifestyle Jacob finds disgusting. Rather than immediately approve or dismiss Jacob's proposal, Jørgen invites him to attend his daughter's wedding. Although he puts up with the businessman's delayed decision, he bristles at being obligated to Jørgen's whims. Nevertheless, in AFTER THE WEDDING Jacob does what he believes will allow him to help the orphans.
But is there a larger game at work? It's uncommon for a stranger--and a visibly hostile one at that--to be invited to a business associate's lavish wedding. Jacob begins to think something is amiss when he recognizes someone. Jørgen's wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a lover from Jacob's tormented past, and there's the strong possibility that the bride, Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), might be his biological daughter. The fallout of any potential revelations could ruin everyone's lives.
Like her 2004 film about love and war (BROTHERS), director Susanne Bier takes a soap opera plot and wrings every last ounce of human emotion out of it. AFTER THE WEDDING'S anguished portrait of family, charity, and mortality peels back layers in the characters that defy their easy categorization. At face value Jacob would appear to be noble and compassionate while Jørgen is manipulative and uncaring, but as plot strands unwind, it becomes harder to tell whose heart is larger.
AFTER THE WEDDING explores what it means to sacrifice for those you love and those who need you. Jacob feels almost nothing but contempt for the privileged in Denmark, especially since he is acquainted with the basic struggles of people in India, yet is he acting out of selfishness or self-righteousness by resisting to provide comfort in his homeland? Films about inspirational figures, particularly those focused on classroom saviors, invariably present rose-colored visions of supreme goodness without detailing the toll on personal lives. What good is charity to others if none exists for those who are closest? The invitation to look closer, expressed through recurring close-ups of eyes, doesn't challenge what's on the surface so much as it searches for core truths.
Mikkelsen and Lassgård's performances command this potent drama. Mikkelsen's dour appearance and cheekbones that could cut glass give him a severe look in contrast to his deep emotional reservoir. The film derives much satisfaction from the softening of his hard exterior. Lassgård owns AFTER THE WEDDING'S most affecting scene. His momentary breakdown about his future is as searing as anything in an Ingmar Bergman film. The existential despair is painful to watch as Lassgård wails to his wife and the universe.
The journey in AFTER THE WEDDING may not lead to a honeymoon, but Bier's unflinching and incisive observations about human connection are rewarding all the same.