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REVIEW | Soft Soap: Susanne Bier’s “After the Wedding”

REVIEW | Soft Soap: Susanne Bier's "After the Wedding"

Moving from its slow, somber, Sigur Ros-soundtracked opening scenes of an orphanage in India to the frenetic bustle of an office space in Denmark, “After the Wedding” initially makes us feel — via quickened cuts on action — as disoriented as principled protagonist Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) does upon his reluctant return home to satisfy potential benefactor Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard). The latter, a mysteriously motivated businessman, hardly talks shop at all, more enthused that the expatriate should attend his daughter’s big day than about making a possible organization-saving donation. His reverse culture shock notwithstanding, Jacob’s sense of something off about the set-up is soon substantiated in Susanne Bier‘s new film.

Similar to the Danish director’s last film, “Brothers,” big moments remain grounded with elusive, elliptical camerawork. Numerous close-ups on eyes, lips, hands — a piecemeal deliverance of information which becomes tiring after awhile but also frequently uncovers minute moments of flickering hesitancy, intimacy — reveal Bier’s affinity for reality-scaled feelings over melodrama. So, through a triangulated exchange of looks we learn, first, that Jorgen’s wife, Helene (the lovely, glowing Sids Babett Knudsen), is Jacob’s former lover, and her husband knows this; and, second, that Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), toasting to her mother and adoptive father at the titular event, must be Jacob’s daughter.

Soap-operatic as this story arc so far sounds (and it gets even more so), “After the Wedding” at first plays out in so muted a manner that it has you wondering how it managed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film; that is, until its last third takes a hardcore turn towards the sentimental displays the Academy favors. Along with frequent co-scripter Anders Thomas Jensen, Bier has mounted a lopsided affair; revealing moments of tenderness are unbalanced by histrionics as plot turns trump the tracking of subtleties in human reaction and interaction. Nearing the conclusion, you begin to wonder just how much misery can be heaped upon poor Anna who, in the space of little more than a week, gets married, finds out she has a father formerly thought dead, catches her newly anointed husband cheating on her, and confronts the reason behind her dad’s well-intentioned but wildly presumptuous actions to bring her biological father into her life.

And that Jacob, a man who has spent many of his formative years abroad pursuing an emphatically nontraditional path, should be manipulated into leaving that life behind to come and settle into another’s conventional shoes — without putting up more of a fuss — smacks of falseness. His adjustment process, despite Mikkelsen’s mighty efforts to imbue an air of agonized indecision into the character, gets stranded by a script too schematic, and ultimately overblown, to incorporate those unruly emotions.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]

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