There are two things that strike us right off the bat about After the Wedding, the new film from Danish director Susanne Bier. The first thing we notice is the ramshackle exotica that opens the film — a colorful cacophony (of India, as it turns out) that's pretty much the polar opposite of the spick-and-span Danish tidiness typified in Bier's previous movies.
The second thing worth noting is the music that swells up under the film's opening sequence and then keeps on swelling at various points throughout After the Wedding (aka Efter Brylluppet, for those wishing to brush up on their Danish). Soundtrack music may not seem like such a big deal, but it's exactly the sort of thing that Bier actively and pointedly resisted in her former life as a Dogme 95 filmmaker.
But that was then, and After the Wedding is now. For what it's worth, Bier never quite fit the part of a Dogme director. Her 2002 debut film Open Hearts followed the basic rules laid down by Lars Von Trier and his Dogme disciples in the group's "Vow of Chastity": Shooting must be done entirely on-location, with no props brought in and cameras strictly hand-held; no special lighting allowed; and music is never permitted unless it actually occurs where the scene is being shot. But despite the stripped-down aesthetic, Bier's work seemed somehow different from what her cohorts were attempting.
Even within the rigorous confines of Dogme 95, Bier's movies have always seemed conspicuously frill-crazy. Big, lurid emotions and monumental twists of fate have driven her films from the beginning, and if that sounds dangerously close to what we generally think of as soap opera, then so be it.
All the hand-held cameras and natural lighting in the world couldn't disguise the fact that Open Hearts was pure suds, a sort of poor man's Breaking the Waves, in which a wife is nudged into cheating on her incapacitated husband. The director's 2005 follow up, Brothers, was even soapier, an intermittently artsy tear-jerker about a beautiful, bereaved war widow being consoled by her bad-boy brother-in-law.
In many ways, you might even say that Bier keeps making the same movie over and over — the one where a perfect couple is torn asunder by tragedy, driving the perfect wife into the arms of a perfect stranger — and with After the Wedding, she's basically made it again. The main difference this time is that Bier is barely pretending to be a card-carrying minimalist any more. And having made a clean break with the Dogme party line, all of the director's most feverishly melodramatic leanings have surged to the surface, where they're aired out in unabashedly opulent style.
That aforementioned India sequence at the film's front occurs mainly to introduce one of the main characters, Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen, the blood-weeping villain from Casino Royale), an attractively disheveled Dane living in self-imposed exile in the third world. Jacob manages an orphanage in Bombay, apparently doing some sort of penance for a vaguely defined bad-boy past, but as After the Wedding opens, he's been summoned back to Demark at the bidding of a wealthy businessman in the habit of doling out donations.
Jacob's potential benefactor is Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), a master of industry living in urbane splendor with his beautiful wife and adorable children, but — as with almost everybody in After the Wedding — he's got deep, dark secrets to burn. After a cursory initial meeting, Jorgen winds up inviting Jacob to the wedding of his eldest daughter, and it's there that the first of the film's surprises is revealed, with many more secrets and lies, traumas, confessions and tears to come.
It's not easy writing about After the Wedding without giving away information the filmmakers would surely rather you discover for yourself — although most of the movie's "revelations" are pretty basic Days of Our Lives stuff and relatively simple to predict — but suffice it to say that credulity-testing coincidences abound; major skeletons emerge from their closets; and almost all of the characters turn out to be connected in ways that produce breast-beating and soul-searching aplenty. Bier's perfect couple comes unraveled, and a third party moves in to take up the slack, as the characters trade places with an almost ritualistic solemnity.
The cosmically proportioned soap opera spills forth and, unshackled at last from her Dogme vows, Bier has free rein to provide juicy emphasis on the purely operatic portion of her equation: Voices swell in volume like Pavarotti playing to the back of the hall, as the film's already full-bodied characters begin shrieking like banshees and hurling overwrought emotions and pitched accusations at one another and into the void.
The camera still whips around nervously, almost Dogme-like at times, but the shots are just as likely to be smoothly executed and slickly composed, while a seemingly endless succession of iconic close-ups of eyes fill the screen. The eyes squint, widen and sometimes just stare enigmatically into space — the largest and most stylish profusion of such shots since The Good, The Bad and The Ugly — but after a dozen or so of these orb-ocentric images, it's easy to find one's patience tested.
Bier is also partial to closeups of hands and mouths (frankly, any body part that indicates a metaphysical dimension will do), but it's the eyes that really have it here. And when the movie runs out of human eyes, After the Wedding begins to inundate us with animal peepers, from the close-ups of road-kill inexplicably inserted into the action from time to time, to the glass eyes of stuffed animals adorning the walls of Jorgen's study. Bier's camera is delirious to the point of self-parody as it swirls around the stuffed stags' heads looming over a wild-eyed Jorgen, mid-freak-out and consuming bottle after bottle of whatever it is people drink in Denmark.
It's all absurdly overheated and maybe even a bit silly, but I wouldn't at all call it unpleasant. Bier still retains an edge, and although her style is now every bit as lush as her former approach was spartan, the execution here goes a long way toward making palatable what is otherwise a pretty conventional storyline.
After the Wedding is far from the grand artistic statement some have made it out to be (and yes, this was actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film), but any movie that can keep us watching after tossing off a farewell speech that makes the long goodbye in Mr. Holland's Opus seem positively hard-hearted — well, that's a movie that has to be doing something right.