For Better, For Worse

A wedding becomes occasion for a strange reunion in Danish director Susanne Bier's After the Wedding

By / March 2012

Eyes speak volumes in Danish director Susanne Bier’s “After the Wedding.” Helene looks at Jacob who looks at Anna looking at Jorgen, and in this shouting match of eyeballs that is Anna’s Copenhagen wedding reception, Jacob is the first to cow. For good reason. 

On business in Denmark to drum up support for his floundering Indian orphanage, Jacob has joined the festivities at the insistence of Jorgen, a prospective benefactor who happens to be the father of the bride. Jacob, his suit untailored, his tie askew. He’ll have a flute of champagne, maybe two, then bounce back to India with a handsome check in pocket.

At least that’s the plan before Anna, a swept-bang nymphet of a bride, stands and delivers an unorthodox toast. Jorgen, she divulges, is not her biological father. The words are meant as praise, as a testament to Jorgen’s big-hearted generosity, but for Helene, Jorgen’s wife, they are a public flogging.

Flush with accusation, mercy, and shame, her eyes graze then settle upon Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen, the villain from “Casino Royale”), who rides a wave of confused tears into the chill of the twilit night. Over this strange, silent spectacle presides gregarious Jorgen, who watches Helene go after her ex-lover with a remove that rules out coincidence.

The issue becomes one of motive. Why has Jorgen orchestrated this reunion? Why now? We cannot cease from suspecting schadenfreude. The music, Jorgen’s mien, everything wafts of malice. Jorgen is a rich and powerful man, a billionaire “feared” in business, as one of his minions proclaims.

How quickly we forget the recent past, that scene from before when Jorgen tucked into bed with a roaring fairytale his and Helene’s school-aged twins, how, not caring, he catapulted into the bathtub fully clothed, how he helped his live-in mother navigate the Internet.

One look and a story we thought was about a mysterious do-gooder becomes a story about a man we must assume is up to no good. Teeth to fingernails, we brace for the worst, perhaps the ruination of the orphanage, perhaps a gun pressed to the back of Jacob’s head.

“After the Wedding” is a film about assumptions, about how limited knowledge leads to conjecture, how ignorance feeds and fattens situational clichés. We are too quick to concede the human tendency to impair, too slow to accept our capacity to safeguard and defend.

What is true of us is true of Bier’s characters on screen. Both Helene and Jacob wait, nervously, for an axe to fall, but under this foreboding shadow, rather than wither, wildflowers sprout. Heartbroken after her new husband’s infidelities surface, Anna finds a confidante in Jacob. Helene, who has kept Anna’s existence from him all these years, makes restitution, as does Jacob for the inconstancy and addiction that marred his previous life.

The film’s fluctuating dynamics are shouldered by a stellar cast, the helmsman of which is Rolf Lassgard, who plays dapper, paunchy Jorgen with preternatural poise until the plot calls for vulnerability and despair, at which point he cracks with the severe grandeur of a Roman statue.

Add “After the Wedding” to that canon of satisfying stories about the fallibility of first impressions and the clarity that comes from a second, a third.

 

Drew Bratcher is the editor of EthnoTraveler.

 

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