Thursday, April 12, 2007

After "After the Wedding" (Spoilers)

The interesting thing about failed movies (or even bad movies -- although bad movies aren't fun to watch) is that they tell you more about movies and about how movies work than successful ones do.

According to Heidegger, most of our experience as embodied human beings, embedded in various socio-cultural contexts is "ready-to hand": meaning that one acts in and through the world without really reflecting on it. An example would be me typing this blog-post on my keyboard: when I type, the keyboard doesn't really exist for me except as an extension of my hand, just as the pen doesn't really exist for me when I write long-hand. But if the keyboard was bad or if the one of the keys, the letter "e", say, stopped working (or the pen ran out of ink), I become aware of the keyboard as an object, with its own properties. What was before, for me, just an extension of my fingers, is now an object in its own right, something to be reflected on and fixed. A breakdown has occured and my keyboard has gone from being a ready-to-hand tool to being a present-at-hand object.

Susanne Bier's beautifully shot and acted After the Wedding has a similar effect. The movie doesn't work -- in fact, it falls flat -- but it brings out more about why movies work than anything I've seen. The film begins in Mumbai where we meet Jacob (pronounced Ya-ko-b), who works for a non-profit organization, caring for destitute children. Jacob is asked to come to Dennmark by a shadowy millionaire, Jorgen. Jacob has to meet Jorgen, talk and -- this is almost assured -- if everything goes right, he gets a nice tidy donation for his charity. Neat? Fishy? Yes, but not in the way you'd expect.

In Dennmark, Jorgen invites Jacob to his daughter's wedding; by this time Jacob's one day in Dennmark has already turned into three and Jorgen seems to be delaying. And at the wedding which gives the film its title, Jacob meets Jorgen's wife, who turns out to be the woman who left him twenty years ago. Is this a coincidence? Jorgen says so. The audience is suspicious. But then, Jorgen's twenty-year old daughter Anna lets slip out -- in her wedding toast, no less -- that she was actually fathered by another man, whom she doesn't know (Are Danes prone to casually revealing these things at weddings?) . No prizes for guessing what Jacob thinks.

A man has found a daughter he fathered after twenty years. What does he do? How does he react? At this point, I was ready for the film to turn into a not unpleasurable weepie or a Festen-style drama, with accusations flying back and forth. But After the Wedding is not that kind of movie. In the very next scene, Jacob confronts Jorgen's wife, his former lover: Either you tell our daughter about me or I will. And in the scene after that, she does exactly that. How will the daughter react? Will she bond with her father? Well, we find that out too -- in the very next scene. And so on it goes. After the Wedding, deals with in scenes, the themes and issues, that other, more weepy movies might devote their entire running times to.

So where's the movie going? It turns out -- again, none of this is revelatory -- that the rich, efficient, almost God-like tycoon, Jorgen, is dying and that this is indeed his way of playing God: making sure that his wife and his kids have something to keep, something to live for, somone who can take care of them, after he is dead. That they do and he dies. And that's the movie.

The last two lines would probably qualify as the understatements of the year. The revelations of Jorgen's death, his family's reaction to it, Jacob's decision to leave his orphanage and be with his family, a family that moreover has given him meaning in his life (not to mention, more funds for his orphanage) are all etched out in searching little scenes; scenes, it is true, that come out of a monstrously contrived plot but which seem -- I can't find any word for it -- authentic. The cinema verite style (what Manohla Dargis has called dogme-lite) and it's artful closeups -- a throbbing lip here, a tearful eye there, a hand lying limp, a face taut with pain, a forehead creased with worry -- manage to be both true and emotional, capturing the emotional pulse of a scene with unerring accuracy, and yet at the same time, seamless, never straining for effect. One scene in particular (out of many) stood out for me: a scene where Anna, the daughter, confronts her foster-father, Jorgen, when she learns of his impending death. No textual description could do justice to its poignancy -- and the brilliance of the actors.

And yet, I was dry-eyed throughout the movie. Not one tear. Not a drop. More importantly, I couldn't wait for the movie, with its over-the-top plot, to end. My impatience mounted as scene after emotional scene (all beautifully shot and acted) went past. When the movie ended, I heaved a sigh of relief. After the Wedding, as good as I could see it was, had been an excruciating experience to sit through.

Why? I'll tackle that in the next post (since this one has gone on long enough).

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