Lifestyles of the Rich and Damaged

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IFC Films

A still from the Danish film After the Wedding.

Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) is an austere and rather cadaverous man, running a desperately under-financed orphanage in Bombay, lavishing what love he can spare on one of its inmates, a little boy named Pramod. If there's any hope that Jacob might keep his institution solvent, it lies in an offer from a mysterious mogul in his native Denmark, who wants to meet with him before committing to fund his efforts. Reluctantly, he agrees to fly home to meet with his would-be benefactor.

Once Jacob lands in Denmark After the Wedding — a rich, intricate and very gripping movie from Susanne Bier — takes off. His benefactor, Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), is Jacob's opposite in every way. He's a large, bumptious man, open in his emotions — genial and generous in his family life — but devious and manipulative in his business dealings. He invites Jacob to attend the wedding of his adopted daughter, knowing full well that (a) he has married the great love of Jacob's life and (b) that the daughter is actually Jacob's child — a fact that becomes agonizingly clear to the latter when he turns up at the lavish nuptial ceremony at Jorgen's lavish estate.

Generally speaking, when a plot is as convoluted as this one — and it has many more twists and turns than it would be fair to reveal here — we are in soap opera country. And maybe we are, but that reckons without the easy naturalism of Anders Thomas Jensen's script and the brilliance with which it is played by its perfectly cast actors. For a very long time we wonder if what's unfolding on the screen is just a set of very curious coincidences instead of what it obviously is: a carefully rigged scheme by Jorgen, who is keeping a dark and tragic secret from his family. When it is revealed, After the Wedding turns into a number of things: a contemplation of mortality for one thing, and perhaps even more important, a revelation of the exquisite mixture of motives that drive people though the circumstantial exigencies of life.

Take Jacob, for instance. He was not always the grim and asexual idealist he appears to be. At one time he was a doper and a drunk idling his life away in third-world squalor. It is why Helene (Jorgen's sensual yet sensible wife, limpidly played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) long ago left him. And why she is startled to encounter him as a new self, stern and rectitudinous. It's the same way with Jorgen. Underneath his affability there is a willful and angry self-made man — and a brutality that is openly manifested in a drunken restaurant brawl that is not quite as surprising as we at first think. We've always suspected that there is more rage in him than he dares to let on. He would not have gotten rich so fast without it. And all along, we have sensed that his support for Jacob's orphanage is contingent on bending him to the rich man's implacable will, which includes a reunion between his wife and her embittered former lover. This guy is the all-time master manipulator and if there is going to be a happy ending to this story, it will be written strictly on his terms.

Yet, somehow that conclusion is achieved — maybe with a certain amount of ambiguity, but at least with Jacob's kids provided for and with him tenuously reconnecting with a better, less tightly wired, self. There is, indeed, an implicit promise that with all secrets revealed, all debts to the past paid, lives can proceed in a more humane way. Which is fine and deeply satisfying to us.

But I don't think that's why After the Wedding works so well. There was a time, particularly in American movies, when the lives of the rich and the damaged were a common subject — almost a genre in itself, with the likes of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford facing the consequences of their pasts or the errant behavior of their soul-crushing relatives and trying to find true love and a reliable trust fund. The clothes, hair styles and decor of these films were alone worth the price of a ticket. And that says nothing about the attendant hysteria of their plots. These were stories for grown-ups, who do not go much to mainstream movies these days. The result is that these dramas wandered off into glamour-trash TV (remember Dallas?) and then into total disuse. Something like Bier's film (or the much darker Danish film, The Inheritance of a few years back) reminds us of what we're missing. It's not just the elegant country houses we revel in. It's the sense these movies convey that money — the giving and withholding of it — is a powerful melodramatic instrument, something that can dominate (and warp) lives. You need mature actors to play in pictures like these and you need someone like Bier to impart a dark, but still enviable, sheen to upscale life. And, more important, to penetrate mere stylishness to find the authentic drama beneath the handsome surfaces. After the Wedding unfolds and enfolds like those old-fashioned novels on which those classic movies were so often based. It speaks the universal language of high romance in the distinctly unromantic Danish tongue. But don't be put off by that. It is a kind of treat we are only rarely offered these days.