The fifth and final 2006 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film finally arrives in American theaters, and it's a serious case of too little, too late. Susanne Bier's After the Wedding, from Denmark, is fairly middlebrow and melodramatic, not as bloody awful as Rachid Bouchareb's Days of Glory or Deepa Mehta's Water, but equally unmemorable. It's a testament to how badly the Academy needs to revamp this category: instead of taking a single submission from each of a list of countries, why not simply nominate the best foreign language films that played in American theaters during a calendar year? That way we could have enjoyed such nominees as Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times, Claude Chabrol's The Bridesmaid, Park Chan-wook's Lady Vengeance, Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Patrice Chéreau's Gabrielle, or perhaps even Jean-Pierre Melville's resurrected 1969 film Army of Shadows.
Fortunately, there's another reason for After the Wedding to exist, and that's the unique and charismatic star Mads Mikkelsen, with his impossibly pointy cheekbones, beady eyes and reptilian lips that look as if they're about to slide right off his face. In this country, he's best known as James Bond's nemesis in Casino Royale, or as Clive Owen's scrungy sidekick in King Arthur (2004), basically a sadistic badass. But in his native Denmark, he's capable of all kinds of things, from black comedies (Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, The Green Butchers) to weepy melodrama (Open Hearts). After the Wedding definitely falls into the latter category (otherwise, it wouldn't have been an Oscar nominee).
Mikkelsen plays Jacob, a man with a mysterious past who now runs an orphanage in India. When he is asked to return to Denmark for a meeting, his most tearful goodbye is reserved for eight year-old, Pramod (Neeral Mulchandani), to whom Jacob has more or less become a surrogate father. In Denmark, he is merely supposed to shake hands with a rich bigwig, Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), cross his fingers and hope for more money to run his organization. But Jørgen takes a liking to Jacob and invites him to his daughter's wedding the next day. There, Jacob runs into an old flame, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), now Jørgen's wife. But he soon puts two and two together and realizes that he's the birth father of the young blushing bride, Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), the daughter he never knew existed.
Basically the rest of the film shows all these characters learning how to relate to one another given this new wrinkle in their lives. Surprisingly, Jacob and Anna actually take to one another like milk to cereal; the movie's real drama arises from elsewhere. It turns out that Anna's new betrothed, a suckup who works for Jørgen, isn't exactly a model husband. And Jørgen has a secret of his own that causes Jacob to make a tough decision. None of this stuff is particularly surprising to anyone who's ever watched a soap opera or a melodrama. And director Susanne Bier (the Dogma 95 entry Open Hearts and Brothers) and her co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (responsible for just about every recent Danish film you've ever heard of) can't quite juggle all the various details.
For example, when Jacob first arrives in Denmark, he checks into a massive, deluxe hotel suite, complete with all the luxuries. We know that Jacob mistrusts wealthy people and that this is a metaphor, but who is paying for this suite? If his job is to ask Jørgen for money, why would Jørgen be the one to pay for his room? Moreover, why does Jacob need to stay in Denmark for over a week when his meeting lasts only a few hours? (The answer is that it gives him time to deal with all his various soap operas.) Moreover, the movie draws obvious thematic parallels -- such as a father who cheats and a husband who cheats, or a husband and wife whose separately kept secrets lead to disaster -- but fails to really take these parallels anywhere.
For example, when Anna's no-good spouse cheats on her (mere days after their nuptials), she turns to her newfound dad for solace, even though she knows that Jacob once cheated on her mom. The movie finds no irony or friction in this potentially wounding duality. Finally, the movie sets up a hard choice for Jacob, whether he should stay in Denmark or return to India, but actually refuses to make the decision. It ends on an ambiguous note. Normally, I'm all for ambiguity in movies, but in a formula genre film like this, it's frustrating. It's a bit like a Rocky movie ending just before the big fight begins. However, this tactic actually ended the movie all that much sooner, which is a good thing.As with her previous features, Bier shoots on hand-held, high-contrast digital video, which results in an ultra-realistic, immediate feel, but which also highlights and underlines the film's confusion and dramatic sidestepping. Nevertheless, in the middle of all this tentative drama, we have Mikkelsen, lost in each of his individual moods and coming out on top. Perhaps this movie's Oscar nomination will result in Mikkelsen landing a few roles in Hollywood movies and sweeping aside our own army of bland pretty boys. He could romance Julia Roberts in the summer and then turn around and do something more substantial (sleep with a suburban mom, or hunt for blood diamonds?) in the fall.