The unfortunately titled Open Hearts may have a plot to match its daytime-TV moniker, but this new feature from the Dogme 95 collective turns out to be more affecting than it has any right to be. Denmark’s entry for the Academy Award’s foreign language film category (it didn’t make the final cut) is a gently humanist melodrama that fulfills the manifesto’s promise of emotional immediacy, if not quite remaining loyal to its antibourgeois spirit.
Opening as it does with a marriage proposal, director Susanne Bier’s tearjerker practically telegraphs the inevitable fall. Rugged Joachim (Nicolaj Lie Kaas) pops the question to radiant Cecilie (Sonja Richter) at a candlelit dinner; pro forma scenes of blissful intimacy follow, as does a mini-spat about Joachim’s impending rock-climbing trip. So much for foreshadowing: the next scene finds Joachim kissing Cecilie goodbye, then suddenly getting run over by a speeding car as he’s about to cross the street.
Waiting for word on her fiancé’s condition, Cecilie is approached by Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), a doctor at the hospital — and the husband of the woman behind the wheel. He gives Cecilie his cell phone number and tells her to call him anytime if she needs to talk. Joachim, she learns soon after, will never walk again; he, in anguish, asks her to disappear from his life. Meanwhile, Niels contends with his shaken wife, Marie (Paprika Steen), who, flush with guilt, urges him to see Cecilie as often as possible. Thus the seeds of an affair are planted.
More nimble than its chamber piece setup might suggest, Open Hearts is an altogether engrossing experience. True to Dogme form, the movie prizes emotional involvement above all else. The movement’s “vow of chastity” — a set of rules aimed at generating maximum feeling via minimum artifice (all handheld, no lighting, no musical score, etc.) — has always been about achieving unvarnished drama. While much of Dogme can be dismissed as cynical hucksterism, it may yet have its place if Bier’s movie is anything to go by.
Like last year’s Danish Dogme release, Lone Schefrig’s Italian for Beginners, Open Hearts distinguishes itself with its fondness for its characters — hardly a trademark of the movement. While Bier doesn’t tell us anything new about marriage and infidelity, the empathetic eye she casts on the romantic tangle is bracing. Bier’s refusal to judge the illicit lovers co-exists easily with her sympathy for the disconsolate Marie. If the scene featuring Niels and Cecilie shopping for furniture is the movie’s giggly respite, Marie’s desperate entreaty to Niels to stay with the family may be its most painful moment.
Buffeted by the competing claims of desire, obligation, and circumstance, the movie’s animating quartet — Cecilie, Joachim, Niels and Marie — inhabit a gray area where everyone has their reasons. Fumbling toward happiness (or out of misery), each of them can’t help but encroach on someone else’s sphere. “Don’t interfere with my life,” yells someone at one point. It’s a futile cry, as the movie makes clear, for each of us interferes in other lives all the time, unintentionally or not.
The unintentional part is what Bier is most interested in. Be it Marie’s speeding car or Niels’ wayward heart, accidents of all sorts lurk in the corners, possibilities we’ve learned to dismiss. At one point, another character intones, “I didn’t ask for this.” The lament is a pithy evocation of how unprepared people are when faced with the unfathomable.
Bier presents this fractured world while keeping the bathos to a minimum. It certainly helps that the cast never abuses the plumb-the-depths opportunities that Dogme’s improvisatory strictures present. Niels’ transformation to romantic wreck is adroit; it sneaks up on you, as it does on him. And while Richter is almost too above-the-fray beautiful, the extent of Cecilie’s confusion comes across subtly by movie’s end. (Richter gets bonus points for being the ideal Dogme actress: there’s no need to light her incandescent face.)
A haggard picture of middle-aged desperation, Steen’s Marie ends up the movie’s most woebegone casualty — unlike the others, there is no closure for this spurned wife. Marie’s bemused glances at the distant Niels carry volumes of subtext. When she learns of the affair, her stoic resignation is heartbreaking: you can’t leave, she tells Niels, because “far too many people will get upset.” Still in love with her husband, she harbors no illusions that she has much to offer him, at least compared to a pert, 23-year-old blonde.
In a way, Bier’s humanism might be too generous. Why, some will wonder, should we not judge a man who sneaks out on his wife and three kids to pursue a lissome babe? Concerned mainly with human drama, the movie can be apolitical to a fault. After Niels stands her up one night, the movie cuts to Cecilie trying, and failing, to assemble newly bought Ikea furniture — surely not the most discreet metaphor for her need for a man.
Unafraid to be messy, Open Hearts is perhaps too studiously open-ended, a misstep we’ll take considering the movie’s refreshing magnanimity. The soapy scenario and bedridden beloved recall two naked emperors: Lars von Trier and Pedro Almodóvar. Both directors have made a living hawking shameless melodrama as high art. While Bier is less audacious than either man, her modesty becomes her movie. Eschewing von Trier’s hateful manipulations and Almodóvar’s ersatz profundity, Bier’s movie is admirably straightforward and scaled down. It gives off a lambent glow, seemingly making up for the conspicuous lack of warmth that has defined Dogme thus far.