Nearly all the attention in this year's foreign-language Oscar race went to the two high-profile entries, the dark fairyland of "Pan's Labyrinth" and the rigorous evocation of East Germany's commie paradise in decay in "The Lives of Others." Both those films are terrific, but for me the category's biggest surprise was found in a movie set more or less right now, absent any child-eating monsters, fascist goons or meticulously awful '80s furniture.
"After the Wedding," from the Danish director Susanne Bier, isn't an especially showy film (although it's luminously photographed, in the post-Bergman Scandinavian tradition), and the story it tells is classic family drama, even if you might not see all its twists coming. A wanderer long absent from his homeland, who has found a surrogate family elsewhere, reluctantly returns to discover that the past still has a surprising hold on him. What feels at first like a quiet, straightforward picture builds into one of the richest and most satisfying of the year so far, in any genre or any language.
Bier is now finishing work on her first American feature, a drama called "Things We Lost in the Fire" that stars Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro, and it's easy to see why producers were eager to snap her up. "After the Wedding" is an audience-friendly film without ever pandering or condescending, and that combination, I'm sorry to say, is getting tough to find in American movies. It works as a compelling evening's entertainment, tightly plotted and full of strongly rendered characters. But it's also emotionally and psychologically dense material, offering a strikingly mature exploration of fate, family and heartbreak, of what we lose and what we gain with the passage of time.
"After the Wedding" is very much a film about first impressions, about how they almost always contain some truth, but don't provide real understanding. Certainly our first impression of Jacob, who is played by Danish film's biggest star, Mads Mikkelsen (he was Le Chiffre, the villainous gambler in "Casino Royale"), is a glowing one. He's a sunburned, 40ish Danish expat who lives and works in an orphanage somewhere in India. Jacob has unofficially adopted an adorable 8-year-old boy named Pramod (Neeral Mulchandani), and even if we get a faint whiff of the possibility that Jacob bailed on someone or something back home, well, so much the better for Pramod and the other orphans, right?
Yeah, more or less. Jacob is a handsome, well-intentioned fellow, and he's the only hero this movie's got. But as we get to know him better our understanding of his motivations deepens, and he becomes less of a saint and more of a shifty, ambiguous character who's making it up as he goes along. Everybody in "After the Wedding" is like that, and let me risk cliché by observing that people outside of movies are like that too. Even Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), the zillionaire Danish developer who insists that Jacob must travel to Copenhagen and meet him before he supplies the orphanage with some much-needed cash, is like that. Especially him, actually.
At first, Jacob sees Jorgen as nothing more than a human piggy bank (accent on the first syllable) to suck up to shamelessly and drain money from. If they both come from the same small, rich and quiet country, they seem like diametrically opposed human beings: Jacob has given up his life of privilege to help the poor, and Jorgen is a fat, boozy, boorish caricature, the half-Americanized Eurobusinessman with a huge country manse and a chauffeured Mercedes.
Of course it's not quite that simple. From the moment of Jacob's reluctant arrival in Copenhagen (his boss virtually has to shove him on the plane), it's clear that Jorgen has ulterior motives of some kind. He plays a cruel game of cat-and-mouse with the money Jacob's orphanage so desperately needs, dragging the visit out over a long weekend and insisting that Jacob attend his daughter's wedding. (Jacob has promised Pramod he'll be home for the boy's birthday, and you realize right away it's one of those promises adults make to kids that can't be kept.)
As the movie's title probably tells you, that wedding -- which Jacob attends purely out of duty and inertia -- is a central event in the story. There's no way to discuss it without giving away at least the first narrative twist in "After the Wedding," so consider this a spoiler alert. I'll be as abstemious about this as I can, but if you really don't want to know what Jacob learns that weekend about why Jorgen so badly needed to meet him in person, go elsewhere now.
Jacob meets Jorgen's spirited brunet daughter, Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), and her irritating corporate-drone fiancé, Christian (Christian Tafdrup), with the requisite air of bored politeness. Jorgen's wife, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), is quite another matter. When she's introduced to Jacob, they stand on the lawn in front of Jorgen's big, ostentatious house with that special kind of intimate discomfort -- you've felt it somewhere, with someone you used to know. Someone you used to know quite well, that is. Perhaps someone from whom you parted on not-so-excellent terms.
Gradually, the penny begins to drop for Jacob, and for us. As the evening wanders into that drunken wedding mode and the speeches become ever more mawkish, secrets and lies from the past begin to spill out awkwardly. How long has it been, exactly, since Jacob and Helene last saw each other? What was the situation, exactly, when they split up? And how old is Anna, exactly? Does Jorgen understand exactly what he's revealing to Jacob -- and to Anna? Why the hell did he bring Jacob into this situation without warning anybody?
This material is juicy enough for "General Hospital," but Bier and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen haven't made a soap opera. As the title suggests, "After the Wedding" isn't about the wedding night's revelations in themselves; it's about what Jacob and Jorgen and Anna and Helene will do now that the truth (or some of it, anyway) has come out. All four of these characters are more like shifting weather systems than fixed landscapes, and all four have more surprises to confront, and to reveal.
Helene comes off initially as a shrewish rich bitch, irrationally protective of Anna and oddly angry toward Jacob over a betrayal two decades in the past. It doesn't take a psychology degree to guess that anger that hot (no matter how legitimate it may be) masks other profound emotions too. Anna seems like a spoiled, flighty girl before revealing a surprising depth of character and resiliency. As superb as Knudsen and Christensen are in those roles, the movie pretty much gets stolen by Lassgard as Jorgen, the Machiavelli who has staged this improbable reunion and turns out to be hiding the biggest secret of all.
On one level, Jorgen really is what he appears to be -- a pompous, up-from-the-bootstraps rich dude who abuses waiters and has an inflated sense of entitlement. But given his world and his worldview, it turns out, he's trying to be just as selfless as Jacob is, and arguably with a purer heart. By the time Jacob finally makes it back to Pramod and India, his encounter with Jorgen has transformed his life, replacing the responsibilities he had taken on willingly with others he never imagined, and believed he had escaped. Life is like that, and so is Susanne Bier's tragic yet optimistic film, an experience you shouldn't miss.
"After the Wedding" opens March 30 at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York; April 6 in Los Angeles; April 13 in Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., Stamford, Conn., and Washington; April 20 in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Edina, Minn., Indianapolis, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Seattle and Austin, Texas; and April 27 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Sacramento, Calif., with many more cities to follow.
DVD roundup: A long-lost post-punk revelation, a hard-boiled Gallic neo-noir, a samurai classic and Thomas Mann
I had totally forgotten about the existence of Christopher Petit's 1979 film "Radio On" until it arrived in my mailbox from Plexifilm, the intrepid distributors of music-related DVDs. Set in a nearly mythical late-'70s Britain and shot in lustrous black-and-white by Martin Schaefer (Wim Wenders' longtime cinematographer), this cult classic has never officially been available in the U.S. before. It's simultaneously mopey and gorgeous, one of the first statements of what might be called the post-punk aesthetic on film.
Himself a former journalist and critic, Petit has gone on to make some remarkable nonfiction films, including the documentaries "Moving Pictures" (about film critic Manny Farber) and "London Orbital" (about the M25 highway, seriously), but for my money he's never topped the moody glories of "Radio On," with David Bearnes as a London DJ investigating his brother's death and a flat-out amazing soundtrack that features David Bowie's German-language recording of "Heroes" along with Kraftwerk, Ian Dury, Lene Lovich, Wreckless Eric, Devo and more. Also possibly the earliest acting performance by Sting, which I guess is a mixed blessing.
One of the art-house fave raves of 2006, Xavier Beauvois' coldblooded, exquisitely rendered cop drama "Le Petit Lieutenant," is now available on a terrific disc from Koch Lorber. French superstar Nathalie Baye is outstanding as the tough lady-cop with a troubled past, even if her performance -- and the entire setup, possibly -- is borrowed from Helen Mirren's legendary work in the "Prime Suspect" series for British TV.
Also just out from Empire Pictures is "The Twilight Samurai," Yoji Yamada's outstanding 2002 foray into the hallowed samurai tradition. Hiroyuki Sanada stars as a low-ranking warrior whose hopes for a secure family life keep being undercut by the violence, corruption and political turmoil of 19th century imperial Japan. Yamada's film swept the Japanese Academy Awards that year, maybe because it simultaneously criticizes and memorializes that nation's history of internal warfare.
Finally, no collector of geeky literary-TV miniseries can afford to be without "The Thomas Mann Collection," from Koch Vision. I won't even pretend to have watched all 19 hours of this, but another East Coast snowstorm or two will take care of that. We're talking seven discs of German miniseries, including the 10-hour adaptation of Mann's "Buddenbrooks" shown on PBS, along with versions of "Doktor Faustus" (a mere 177 minutes) and Hans Geissendörfer's grotesque and colorful version of "The Magic Mountain," Mann's masterpiece.