Bier primes us for a catfight, but she gives something tastier: a feast of reconciliation and love.
The filmmaker, whose theme is self-constructive (as opposed to self-destructive) emotionalism, made her name with the astringent soap operas Brothers and Open Hearts. In the former, a happily married homemaker becomes emotionally involved with her brother-in-law when her soldier husband gets taken prisoner in Afghanistan. In the latter, a woman falls in love with the doctor whose car struck her fiance and left him paralyzed.
In Wedding, likewise riddled with coincidences (or are they?), Jacob is unaware of a significant connection that comes to light when the great Dane considers underwriting his orphanage.
Sounds like the ingredients for overheated schmaltz. But Bier and frequent collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen serve this probing study in masculinity at room temperature with a tasty drizzle of vinegar and tears.
What rescues the material from mawkishness is not the surprise of the revelations, but the surprising profundity of the performances. As Jacob, edgy Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre in the recent Casino Royale), has a face jagged as a Cubist portrait. At every turn, he looks poised to puncture Lassgard's Jorgen, who seems to be inflated of pure ego.
The apparently egoless Jacob, who has a fatherly bond with an orphan named Pradop, and the apparently egotistical Jorgen, whose children are specimens as showy as the hunting trophies in his den, look to be headed for a moral showdown.
But Bier's point, framed in extreme close-ups that magnify the characters' inner conflicts, is that altruists are not as selfless as we think they are, nor are tycoons as selfish. The relation between the two men is thicker than blood and stronger than steel, as Jacob suspects when he is invited to the wedding of Jorgen's daughter.
Both the socially conscious aid worker and the social-climbing industrialist are consumed by their responsibility. If men are defined by their work, then how do they wrestle with the question of whether their professional responsibilities are more important than their personal ones? The performances are restrained, but Bier's jittery camera and editing cuts to the emotional quick.
As with all melodramas (not to mention other families), the more one knows about the players, the more forgiving one is of their failings and appreciative of their strengths. Bier loves her characters, and so do we. They're unforgettable.
After the Wedding ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Produced by Sisse Graum Jorgensen, directed by Susanne Bier, written by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, photograpy by Stine Hein, Ole Kragh-Jacobsen, Morten Soborg and Otto Stenov, music by Johan Söderqvist. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 2 hours
Jacob. . . Mads Mikkelsen
Jorgen. . . Rolf Lassgard
Helene. . . Sidse Babett Knudsen
Anna. . . Stine Fischer Christensen
Parent's guide: R (sexuality, profanity, mature themes)
Playing at: Saturday at 7 p.m. Ritz East
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly/flickgrrl/.