Director Susanne Bier mainlines emotion. She has a connection to feelings and passions that is as direct and potent as an addict's needle piercing a vein. Her fierce and compelling dramas, like the new "After the Wedding," serve it up straight, no chaser, and dare anyone to flinch.
Though she's been directing in Denmark since 1990, Bier only entered U.S. film consciousness with her previous two films: "Open Hearts" and 2004's wrenching drama of war's aftermath, "Brothers," which took the audience award for world cinema at Sundance. "After the Wedding" has been her most successful, getting nominated for two European Film Awards including best director, and making the cut in a highly competitive year as one of the five Oscar nominees for best foreign-language film.
FOR THE RECORD:
"After the Wedding": The review of the movie "After the Wedding" in Friday's Calendar section said Susanne Bier had been directing in Sweden since 1990. She has been directing in Denmark. The review also referred to actor Mads Mikkelsen as having appeared in small Swedish films such as "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself." The reference should have been to Danish films. Also the print edition of this story misidentified director Susanne Bier as Swedish.—
Like all Bier's work, "After the Wedding" is frankly a melodrama, a film where the emotions are huge and the coincidences larger still. But more important, it's that paradoxical melodrama that point-blank refuses to acknowledge that it's being melodramatic, conveying its scenario with enough intensity, psychological acuity and forceful acting to ignore labels and flat-out overpower audiences.
"After the Wedding," written by the veteran Anders Thomas Jensen, stars the gifted, charismatic Mads Mikkelsen, whose career has gone from small Danish films like "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" to big budget international villainy as the ice cold Le Chiffre in the recent James Bond movie "Casino Royale."
Mikkelsen plays Jacob, introduced not in Denmark but in India, where he manages an orphanage and a food aid program and serves as a surrogate father to a winsome 8-year-old orphan named Pramod.
Even before the opening credits have finished, Jacob is presented with what he considers the most painful of dilemmas. A billionaire Danish businessman has offered to donate a sum of money without which the orphanage cannot stay open. But before he does so the man insists that Jacob return to Denmark and meet him, a condition which Jacob, who despises rich people and doesn't want to miss Pramod's upcoming birthday party, feels is particularly onerous.
Yet, though nothing is said, the feeling is inescapable that more than this is going on. Though he is devoted to his work to an almost Jesuitical extent, Jacob has the air of God's angry man, someone who has unfinished, unanalyzed personal business somewhere in his history. Going back to Denmark, even for a visit, is clearly the last thing he wants to do.
Once the decision to go is forced on him, "After the Wedding" switches to Denmark, where billionaire Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard) and his wife, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), are preparing to marry off their daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen).
By casting heavyset Swedish actor Lassgard as Jorgen, director Bier has chosen to present him, at least physically, as the classically bluff, overbearing captain of industry. But though he looks crass and crude, "After the Wedding" takes pains to introduce Jorgen en famille, so to speak, to show him engagingly reading bedtime stories to his young twin sons, enjoying the company of his wife, even bemusedly tolerating his aged mother. Yes, he's pleased with himself, and why not?
When Jorgen and Jacob meet, the businessman announces that his mind is not made up yet about where to put his money. He needs a few days to decide and, in the interim, he insists that Jacob attend his daughter's wedding the next day. The antisocial Jacob would prefer not to, but Jorgen insists.
Because Bier's film is called "After the Wedding," it's giving nothing away to say that something happens at the wedding that is so confounding it would be the climax of another film, but here it is only the very beginning of the story. What transpires upends everyone's world and reopens all kinds of old wounds, even ones that the injured didn't know they had.
As noted, unstinting acting across the board is crucial in making the film's melodramatic elements convincing. A director who has said "I have a very strong ability to empathize, to understand what things feel like," Bier is expert at creating the kind of atmosphere that enables actors to throw themselves into some truly difficult scenes. If the performers believe that this is real, if they can play situations as if they were truly life and death, who are we to argue?
In fact, "After the Wedding" is so adroit at using seemingly unreal situations as a conduit for inescapably real emotions, it underlines how useful melodrama can be for exploring universal dilemmas. Questions of responsibility haunt this film, questions of both the need and the cost of abandoning and connecting to other human beings. Who needs our help, finally, and who do we have to be to be able to give it?
"After the Wedding" would never pretend to have any answers, but in hands this skilled the act of exploration itself couldn't be more illuminating, or more dramatic.
"After the Wedding." MPAA rating: R, for some language and a scene of sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes. In selected theaters.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times