Dodging Dogmas

In the first part of "After the Wedding" ("Efter Brylluppet"), Danish director Susanne Bier takes audiences on a tour of the streets of India.

In the first part of "After the Wedding" ("Efter Brylluppet"), Danish director Susanne Bier takes audiences on a tour of the streets of India, revealing crowded masses, a wealth of colors and painful images of poverty and distress. Orphans push in line for lunch, and the pale-skinned man piling food on their plates is quickly discovered to be a foreigner. Though he directs the orphanage and is connected to the children living there, he is quickly forced to leave it all behind to travel home to Denmark. He is told that a Danish millionaire is interested in making a donation to the orphanage but insists on meeting him face-to-face before signing the check.

Evidently against his will, Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) boards the plane. Once in Copenhagen, he finds himself in an especially luxurious hotel. Despite the splendid room, the designer furniture, the huge flat-screen television hanging on the wall and the electronic blinds operated with the flick of a switch, Jacob is determined to return to India. The wealth of his native country does not enchant him, nor does he particularly like its wealthy people. He simply wants to obtain funding and fly back to the orphans waiting for him in India.

Rolf Lasgard plays the part of Jorgen, the millionaire awaiting Jacob's arrival. It is easy to identify with Jacob's hatred of the rich when he discovers that Jorgen is not really interested in the orphanage. It is hard not to be suspicious of his motives when he explains that he wants to help Indian orphans simply because he is a good person.

At this juncture, it seems as though social gaps are going to comprise the central axis of the film. However, the tension soon erupts in an entirely different context. In the ensuing scenes, Jorgen's daughter gets married and a secret from the past is revealed that turns the plot upside down, sweeping Jacob and the wealthy family into an exhausting emotional vortex. They are suddenly forced to deal with issues of abandonment, parenthood and death and are pushed to take fateful decisions.

In a telephone interview in March, Bier (who arrives in Israel today) said she had planned to direct a light-hearted film. "This is my third collaboration with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, and each of the times we worked together, we decided we were going to do a comedy and along the way something went awry."

"After the Wedding" will be screened tomorrow with the director present at the Jerusalem Film Festival and will show at movie theaters around the country come Friday. The film was nominated this year for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. While Biers and Jensen had fantasized about filming a comedy, it quickly turned into a tragedy laden with emotional upsets.

To demonstrate these turns, amplify the drama and make the audience dizzy, Bier uses a shaky camera and one of her trademarks: extreme close-ups. "This is a personal obsession of mine," she says. "I feel that a close-up of an eye, for example, transforms it into an abstract image. I think that close-ups like that help make it possible to be simultaneously inside of a given moment and outside of it. If something dramatic happens near me, for example, it could be that at that moment I will choose to at someone's eye or to focus on his mouth. This is how I am used to looking at the world, and this is how I let my characters see it."

Today Bier is considered one of the foremost cineastes in Denmark. Thanks to this, the Hollywood studio Dreamworks invited her to work on her new film, "Things We Lost in the Fire," in the United States. She has recently completed work on the film, the budget for which is estimated at $16 million and is due to open in the U.S. in October. She says that working with the studio was, in fact, a pleasant experience. Because they related to her film as a small, personal film, she says, no one intervened in her work.

The transition to Hollywood is a bit surprising in light of Bier's past. The unsteady camera in "After the Wedding" and the skeletons in it that leap out of the closet during the particularly formal and festive family event are reminiscent of another Danish film, Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration" ("Festen") from 1998. This film, which features a terrible family secret revealed at the 60th birthday party of the admired father, was the first film to be made in accordance with the guidelines of the avant-garde Dogme 95 film collective; Bier also worked according to these rules in the past.

In 1995 the Dogme group, which numbered several Danish directors headed by Lars von Trier and Vinterberg himself, formulated rules for creating a new genre of cinema: a genre that would shake off the expensive elements of Hollywood films and offer cinematic creativity that is basic and minimalist, and which refrains from the use of special effects, sets, makeup and costumes.

Bier made her film "Open Hearts" (2002) in accordance with the 10 Dogme rules. "When you make a Dogme film, all the rules are provided in advance," she says. "These rules determine for you what is permissible and what is forbidden, and essentially what is left for you is to focus on the story and the characters. Such a film is like a cake without icing. It's something very basic, without decoration."

Bier believes that Dogme 95 influenced the shaping of contemporary cinema and pushed it in the direction of simplicity and a focus on plot and character. However, when she set about working on "After the Wedding," she realized that this time she was not interested in making a Dogme film.

"If you decide to make a film like that, you have to follow all the rules that appear in the manifesto, the way I did in 'Open Hearts.' This time, I decided that I wasn't interested in abiding by all those rules. I learned a lot from that film, but in 'After the Wedding' I enjoyed using music, costumes and other things that are forbidden by the Dogme rules. I think that for me this was a reminder that the language of film can serve as a tool for telling a story, and not the other way around," she says.

The gap between the purposely cheap look of the Dogme films and polished Hollywood productions is reminiscent of the abyss that exists between India and Denmark at the beginning of "After the Wedding." When Bier is asked about the decision to juxtapose the two countries at the beginning of the film - the poor and dirty alongside the clean and wealthy - even though this contrast is not connected to the main plot line, she explains that she wanted "to relate to the huge gaps between India and Denmark, but to also depict the dependence between these two places, to show that it is not entirely clear which of them is preferable."

However, in accordance with her current status, she admits that her primary motive was to, in fact, come to the defense of the rich. "In Scandinavia, there are a lot of very wealthy people, and there is a lot of prejudice against them," she says. "Therefore we decide that we wanted to challenge these opinions, to show they are not necessarily correct, that not all rich people are bad."