Dir: Susanne Bier. Denmark. 2002. 113 mins.
Just when you thought the Dogme 95 movement was out of fashion, Susanne Bier (The One And Only, Once In A Lifetime) delivers Open Hearts, a knockout adult drama made according to the controversial Danish manifesto. Eliciting painfully true insights into human relationships from her tragic scenario and her extraordinary actors, the director reaches dramatic heights usually only scaled by rare masters like Mike Leigh or fellow countryman Lars Von Trier. Picked up recently for the US by Newmarket Films, Open Hearts should score major critical recognition and widespread arthouse bookings. There's not a cinemagoing adult in the world who wouldn't relate to the passions and dilemmas on show. In Denmark it is now showing on 62 screens and has taken $1.46m (213,072 admissions) after three weeks.
The film is neither melodrama nor soap opera. Bier gets under the skin of her characters and thrusts the audience into the emotional turbulence of their lives in a thrilling documentary-style way. The simplicity required by the Dogme manifesto (no artificial set-up and lighting) clearly helps Bier and her actors here achieve an authenticity which recalls the best of early Dogme like Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration or Trier's The Idiots.
Reviews will drive the film initially, while word-of-mouth will keep upscale adult audiences coming to see it. Like The Celebration, it will become a talked-about movie whose very intensity is its biggest selling point. It's European arthouse film-making of the classic tradition and comparisons to Ingmar Bergman's 70s chamber pieces like Scenes From A Marriage or Autumn Sonata are not inappropriate. Like The Idiots and The Celebration, the plot's set-up is a quirky one. Cecilie (Sonja Richter) and Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) are two young lovers who have decided to get married, but fate takes a hand when one morning a car runs into Joachim as he is getting out of Cecilie's car and paralyses him for life.
The driver of that car is Marie (Paprika Steen) who is happily married to and has three children with Niels (Mads Mikkelsen). Torn up by guilt at the accident, Marie asks Niels, who works in the hospital where Joachim is being treated, to comfort Cecilie. Inadvertently however, she sparks off a passionate affair between Cecilie and her husband.
As Cecilie struggles to comfort the hostile and bitter Joachim and Niels struggles with his conscience, the two continue with their affair. Niels buys Cecilie new furniture and determines to leave his wife and family, but before he can confront them, his wife finds out about his infidelity.
Nothing is black and white in the messy, painful infidelities of Open Hearts. The turmoil that is unleashed by the affair and the characters' reactions to it are so poignant to witness that it feels, at times, like Bier's hand-held camera is recording a real-life situation. The four actors are excellent. Mikkelsen is a familiar face from Pusher and I Am Dina, Kaas was also in The Idiots while Steen, who is probably the standout here, is instantly recognisable from The Celebration, The Idiots and Mifune as well as Trier's Dancer In The Dark.
Prod co: Zentropa
Den dist: Nordisk/Zentropa
Int'l sales: Trust Film Sales
Exec prod: Peter Aalbaek Jensen
Prod: Vibeke Windelov
Scr: Anders Thomas Jensen
Cinematography: Morten Soborg
Prod des: William Knuttel
Ed: Pernille Bech Christenson, Thomas Krag
Mus: Jesper Winge Leisner
Main cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Sonja Richter, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Paprika Steen, Stine Bjerregaard