After the Wedding is a full-blown melodrama with a heavyweight cast. It features several elements of what we now see as director Susanne Bier’s authorial style – the hand-held camera and big close-ups, the strong sense of colour pallete (blues and greens here) and a plot that involves a connection to aid work in India. Weddings in many cultures are events which do more to reveal the tensions in families than to celebrate the foundation of a new relationship. And so it is in this case. Mads Mikkelsen is Jacob, a Dane who has lived in India for the past twenty years or so and has established an orphanage project to help street children. He is invited back to Copenhagen to be interviewed by a hotel billionaire interested in making a large-scale charitable commitment. The man in question turns out to be Jørgen – played by Rolf Lassgård, the formidable Swedish actor and one of the few figures in Nordic cinema capable of matching Mikkelsen at full throttle.
Jørgen procrastinates and invites Jacob to his daughter Anna’s wedding. When Jacob arrives at the grand mansion in its extensive grounds he is shocked to see that Jørgen’s wife (and Anna’s mother) is Helene – played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, currently the Danish Prime Minister in Borgen. We can all probably guess what the revelation that follows will be and the fourth major player in the drama becomes Anna herself, well played by Stine Fischer Christensen. But this revelation is not actually the main narrative twist – the real question is why Jorgen has seemingly engineered a situation which can only cause trouble. I won’t reveal the answer but only say that in developing the narrative, Bier sets up some very interesting debates about entrepreneurship and global capitalism, foreign aid and charitable giving etc. alongside personal happiness and responsibilities and family commitments. This is an interesting mix which we don’t often find in a melodrama. We don’t, of course, get a neat answer and nor should we, but the discussion is valuable.
The film looks terrific and I found it to be an intriguing mix of the vitality of the Dogme-style camerawork (hand-held and minimally lit) and strong acting performances with the sumptuous melodrama mise en scène of the mansion interiors – most evident in Jørgen’s room full of the heads of animals he has shot (possibly a reference to Vincente Minelli’s Home From the Hill?). The Indian locations at the beginning and end of the film also add colour – and music. In that sense the film is certainly a melodrama, as it is with the various plot coincidences. The four actors are all capable of expressive performances with Lassgård particularly good in a boorish drunk scene and Mikkelsen very good at being sullen and aggrieved.
But as well as a satisfying melodrama, After the Wedding asks us to consider what we achieve in our lives. Is looking after your loved ones as important as helping thousands out of poverty? Does helping thousands mean atonement for actions that hurt a few? If you are ‘good’ but don’t help anyone, even those you love, as much as you would like to, does that make you a failure? From this you can move on to more philosophical questions. Is foreign aid ever a good idea? Is it more to assuage the guilt of the giver than to help those who ‘receive’ it?
After the Wedding was nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar. Susanne Bier didn’t win but she only had to wait a few years until Haeven (2011)
I’m looking forward to seeing Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, a festival prizewinner starring Mads Mikkelsen. It’s Mikkelsen’s second major performance of the year, following A Royal Affair, one of my top films released in the UK in 2012. Vinterberg has not really had a success in the UK since Festen back in 1998. I confess that I haven’t seen the films that he made during the 2000s but the arrival of The Hunt has prompted me to go back and review the impact of the Dogme movement led by Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. I want to consider what it means 15 years on from the first Dogme film and how much it has influenced the current resurgence of Danish film and TV.
Festen was officially ‘Dogme #1’ – the first title to receive the certificate used as a title card for each Dogme film. Open Hearts was ‘Dogme #28’. According to this useful Dogme ’95 page, the certificates were dropped after ‘Dogme #31’ in the same year – but the same website lists another 70 or so films that claim to be following the ‘Vow of Chastity’ conjured up by von Trier and Vinterberg in 1995 – the internationally celebrated centenary of the cinema. Whether or not filmmaking needed to be ‘re-invented’, von Trier and Vinterberg spoke some sense amongst the blather with which they promoted their Dogme idea. They managed to make the whole Dogme debate into one which encouraged lots of further discussion and inspired dozens of low-budget filmmakers, many of them first-time directors. They also made, with their Danish colleagues, several entertaining and interesting films. Crucially, they also put Denmark, one of the pioneers in filmmaking in the 1910s, back on the international map and opened up opportunities for Danish writers, directors and actors.
Open Hearts is interesting for several reasons. It stars Mads Mikkelsen and was directed by Susanne Bier. Already a successful director in Denmark with The One and Only (1999), Bier has gone on to make several prize-winning films that have captured the attention of specialised cinema audiences worldwide. Keith has written about In a Better World (Haeven), which won the Best Foreign language Oscar in 2011, and I know that Rona is a fan. In this 2002 film Susanne Bier approaches a Dogme project much as Lone Scherfig did in Italian for Beginners (2000). Scherfig’s film turned out like a kind of romcom and Open Hearts has a similar generic familiarity without resorting to obvious genre formulas. The frame is 1:1.37, the camerawork is handheld and presented in clear sharp images – apart from the occasional night-time shot where the grain shows without powerful lighting. The film actually opens with a double Dogme conceit. The Vow of Chastity forbids ‘optical effects’, so Bier uses an infra-red camera to track through a city centre at night. At the same time, we hear seemingly non-diegetic music – another forbidden choice in a Dogme film. But then we realise that the young woman we see in the first shot filmed without infra-red is actually listening to an MP3 player through earphones. Following this little ‘play’ with the rules, the ensuing drama sticks close to the Dogme idea and delivers a riveting domestic drama, a form of realist melodrama. (There is one rule that is broken though – Bier occasionally uses a Super 8mm camera to show what characters might be thinking about in the middle of a conversation.)
The young woman in the opening sequence is Cecilie (Sonja Richter) who is about to meet her fiancé Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas – currently playing Sarah Lund’s partner in The Killing 3). She’s a restaurant chef and he’s a postgraduate student about to set off on another exciting overseas field trip. After a night of passion she drives him to his departure point where a terrible accident occurs and he is seriously injured – and paralysed from the neck down. The woman responsible for the accident is Marie (Paprika Steen) and in classic melodrama coincidence, her husband Niels (Mikkelsen) is a surgeon at the hospital where Joachim is taken. Niels finds himself comforting Cecilie – and falling for her. Desperate to help Nikolaj, Cecilie finds herself rejected as he tries to come to terms with what has happened. I won’t spoil more of the plot – it should be clear from just this brief outline that the drama has lots of possibilities, especially when we realise that the young teenage daughter of Marie and Niels also has a role to play in a developing family melodrama. There is a neat conflation of several familiar narratives – the whirlwind romance in unusual circumstances, the marriage drama and, slightly less familiar, the ‘facing quadriplegia’ drama (cf The Sea Inside).
The Dogme approach in one sense ‘reduces’ cinema since it bans a whole range of cinematic devices. On the other hand it enhances the most important features – a tightly-written script and the direction of actors. The results can be, as they are here, raw and powerful emotions with a high degree of credibility. There are relatively few locations and no use of ‘special’ mise en scène ideas – though audiences can certainly ‘read’ symbolism into decisions to locate scenes in, for example, a kitchen or a furniture store.. Everything rests on what the actors say to each other and how they say it. ‘Realist melodrama’ of this kind is often startling because it seems to signify ‘honesty’/’authenticity’ – i.e. it constructs these concepts using just script, performance and basic camera operations. This ‘honesty’ is both shocking and sometimes very funny in a dark way. This is exemplified by a sequence in which Joachim in his angry reaction to his situation and his concern about Cecilie’s love, turns on the older nurse who has been assigned to his personal care. He uses the most obscene and personally offensive language he can think of, but later we see further exchanges which suggest that she gives as good as she gets and that Joachim is becoming less aggressive. (The nurse is played by Birthe Neumann, the mother from Festen.) The script is by Anders Thomas Jensen, who is now one of the leading scriptwriters in Denmark. In 2002 he already had two Dogme films to his name and since then he has worked extensively with Susanne Bier as well as on Lars von Trier projects.
I enjoyed Open Hearts very much and I recommend it as an antidote to sentimental Hollywood films with some of the same ingredients. Susanne Bier was already an established director when she made Open Hearts, so this shows that the Dogme approach is something that isn’t just good for relatively new directors, but that it can add something to the work of experienced directors as well. I think that in this case, the simplicity of the Dogme approach highlights the acting talent in Denmark as well as the strong script and excellent direction.
Some more Susanne Bier films to follow, I hope, and then The Hunt.
Useful analysis of the film’s narrative and form. (Beware that this includes more spoilers than the outline above.)
This is a brave film, addressing tricky moral questions directly and with passion. The English title suggests a rather erroneous take on the film: the Danish title Haeven translates as ‘Revenge’ or ‘Vengeance’. And the film dramatises situations where victims on the receiving end have to consider whether violence is an apt or worthwhile response.
The film has two settings, an apparently quiet and scenic seaside location in Denmark and a refugee camp in the Riff Valley in Kenya. Straddling these two settings, so far apart geographically and culturally is Anton, a doctor providing treatment for the refugees in the camp. Back in Denmark his marriage to Marianne is on the rocks: apparently due to an extra-marital affair he has committed. Their youngest son is probably too young to notice, but the older, Elias, is suffering. His suffering is in part due to bullying at the school he attends. Bullying that is brought on by his obvious handicap, a brace on his teeth, but also because he is Swedish.
This family is deeply affected by the arrival of Claus, a successful businessman and his son Christian. Their wife and mother has died of cancer in London and they have returned to live with Claus’s mother and Christian’s grandmother. Christian starts at the school. A seeming co-incident, he shares the same birthday as Elias, leads to their sitting together. Almost immediately Christian becomes the target of the lead bully Sofos [Simon Maagaard Holm].
Elias has not coped with the bullying and he has striven to keep this from his mother. Elias has a feminine look: in the first shot I was not sure if he was a young girl or a young boy? Christian is made of a different metal. The tragedy of his mother’s death, for which he partly blames his father, has induced a strong trauma. The film does not suggest any earlier influences but one wonders. Christian has an exceeding cool exterior, but underneath he has a willingness and tendency for extreme violence. There is a powerful scene where he turns violently on the school bully.
This action produces a strong bond between the young boys. Christian’s stark attitude, repay violence with violence, leaves him aghast when Anton [out with the boys] declines to respond to the violence of a working class father. It is Christian’s attempt to provide his own form of retribution, in which he involves Elias, which leads to the dramatic and nearly tragic climax of the film.
Elias’ mother Marianne bears the scars of the faulty marriage. She is also fairly emotional. At different points in the film she accuses both Sofos and Christian of being ‘psychopaths. This is untrue of the former, but possibly accurate re the latter.
Anton appears a more stable character and is extremely high-minded. One of the parallels in the Kenyan part of the story is his contact with a local warlord. The latter indulges in extreme violence, especially against young women. Anton pursues his Christ-like refusal of violence even in this instance. There does, though, come a point where his seeming restraint actually breaks down.
Claus is a minor character, and his main function is in terms of Christian’s angst over his mother’s death. But all three parents at one point or another fail to communicate and support their two sons. These are important factors in the violent climax: a climax that emphasises the gulf between the worlds of the adults and the worlds of the children.
One excuse for the English-language title is that the film essays some sort of reconciliation. The plotting of this does seem rather conventional and loses the complexity of the early drama. However, as is often the case, there are unresolved issues for all the main characters at the end.
Part of the strength of the film is in the fine ensemble acting and in the powerful treatment of the characters and their emotions. Much of the film uses beautiful long shots, which provide a scenic setting but also place the action. But these are interwoven with larger, powerful close-ups, which show all of the anger, grief and extreme emotion. The director’s earlier work with a Dogme film seems very relevant here.
Susanne Bier has made several fine films, and all of them have featured both carefully presented emotional conflicts and also examined carefully the underlying moral issues. I suspect that the film’s beauty and intriguing plot but somewhat upbeat ending were important in the film winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar. A number of critics have been less impressed because the film does seem to opt for a conventional way out from its conflict. Some also questioned the pairing of European Denmark with war-torn Africa. My feeling was that it both involved the audience and positioned them to think carefully about the morality of violence, revenge and [indeed] non-resistance. In fact the film both opens and closes with a tracking camera of African children running happily behind the Land Rover that carries the camp medical team. At the beginning Anton turns and throws a football to them for their game and they scamper off to play. Whilst this presents the positive side of the character, it also subtly underlines the gap between the worlds of adult and of children which is depicted in this film.
Denmark, 2010, in colour and 2.35:1, Danish with subtitles.