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Opening in vibrant but impoverished Mumbai, and pitting a lean, financially struggling do-gooder against a fleshy, self-satisfied multi-millionaire, After the Wedding at first seems to head in a political direction. Danish director Susanne Bier is loosely affiliated with Lars von Trier’s Dogma movement, and that group’s filmmakers have produced numerous unflattering portraits of the rich and powerful, mostly set in Denmark but also in von Trier’s cartoonish notion of the United States. Narratively, however, Bier’s latest family saga is an old-fashioned melodrama, even if it is rendered in the newfangled parlance of digital video, abrupt edits, and restless hand-held camera. The more elaborate the plot gets, the more Victorian the movie feels.
After the Wedding is another story of a missing father, although at first such matters don’t seem to be Bier’s literal concern. Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) is a surrogate dad of sorts, running an orphanage that is, at least in part, a sanctuary for the throwaway offspring of Mumbai’s legions of prostitutes. Jacob fled Denmark long ago, with no intention of returning, and he’s unhappy to learn that a donor wants him to visit Copenhagen to discuss a potential grant. But the orphanage is nearly broke, so Jacob has little choice. He promises the kids that he’ll be gone only a week, although one of them sagely predicts that he won’t be back.
Arriving in Denmark, as the soundtrack shifts from ragas to Sigur Rós and the Weather Girls, Jacob checks into an absurdly luxurious hotel suite that’s part of the empire of Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), a man who clearly gets what he wants. Jacob’s meeting with Jørgen is inconclusive, and the beggar from Mumbai feels he has little choice when Jørgen insists he attend his daughter’s wedding the next day. The nuptials reveal something of the family dynamic. Although Jørgen is ruthless in business and a literal killer—his huge country home has a room stuffed with animal trophies—his wife and children love him. So does his daughter’s groom, Christian (Christian Tafdrup), who’s clearly more excited to be Jørgen’s new son-in-law than the husband of Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen). Anna is no less devoted to Jørgen and offers a wedding toast thanking him for taking such good care of her even though she’s not his biological daughter.
The script, written by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, is in no rush to explain all this. But by the time Jacob stalks from the reception, he obviously understands what’s happened, if not why. Jørgen’s wife is Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), Jacob’s ex, who abandoned him in India about 20 years before. Anna is 20 and already knows that her bio-dad is a stranger to her. Enter the stranger. But why did Jørgen go to all this trouble to bring Jacob and Anna together? Initially, he denies any plan, but, of course, he has one. And with the help of some events he couldn’t have planned—but just might have anticipated—Jørgen gets what he wants, yet again. So does Jacob, sort of, although at a significant cost.
Bier first attracted attention outside Denmark with 2002’s Open Hearts, which followed Dogma’s austere stylistic code but had an elaborate soap-operatic scenario in which members of two couples (one of the men played by Mikkelsen) divide and realign after a serious car crash. With 2004’s Brothers, the director began defying certain Dogma strictures, a process that continues in After the Wedding, while maintaining her interest in betrayal, infidelity, family politics, and serious medical conditions.
For all its intensity, and despite Mikkelsen’s brooding presence, After the Wedding is sunnier than Bier’s previous work. It’s almost as if the film identifies not with Jacob (a Dogma kind of guy if ever there were one) but with the expansive, manipulative, and oddly cheery Jørgen. He’s the God figure in a film that takes an omnipotent approach to narrative, arranging every success and reversal just so. The effect is richly entertaining but emotionally limited—nothing really seems to be at stake here. The altruistic Jacob may be the film’s most sympathetic major character, yet, ultimately, After the Wedding decides to stay in comfortable Copenhagen and leave the perplexities of Mumbai behind.