Thursday, April 3, 2003

Consenting adultery

Movie: Open Hearts

Posted on Thu, Apr 3, 2003 at 4:00 AM

****
Our Rating: 4.00

The U.S. title of the Danish export "Open Hearts" -- the 28th film made under the strictures of the Dogme 95 movement -- could refer just as easily to surgery as emotional availability. Director Susanne Bier and her co-writer, Anders Thomas Jensen, conceive romantic fealty as a fragile organ that's in constant danger of being sliced in two by the unsparing scalpel of sexual obsession.

The movie starts on a deceptively idyllic note with the engagement of young lovebirds Cecilie (Sonja Richter) and Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Almost as soon as we've made their acquaintance, Joachim becomes the victim of the most bracing, swiftly catastrophic auto mishap seen on a movie screen since "Adaptation." The fallout is irreversible paralysis from the neck down, a prognosis Joachim takes like a man: i.e., by wallowing in self-pity and freezing Cecilie out until she makes a tearful departure from his shattered life.

The haven she seeks is the one offered by Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), a doctor in the hospital where Joachim is being treated. Considering it his job to lend Cecilie a sympathetic ear at all hours of the day or night (and thus effectively distinguishing the movie's milieu from the American heath-care system), Niels receives the full blessing of his wife, Marie (Paprika Steen of "Dancer in the Dark" and "The Celebration"), who also just happens to be the driver who cut Joachim down in his prime. That this coincidence only seems contrived for a moment or so speaks volumes about Dogme's ability to make brazen soap operatics flow naturally.

Cecilie and Niels fall into a passionate but supremely ill-advised affair that caters to her neediness but foretells doom for his already precarious home life. (The couple has two young boys and a pubescent daughter who's fully exploiting her arrival at the age of resenting simply everything.) We're treated to the discomfiting spectacle of two unlikely lovers waltzing through a minefield of bad decisions, all of them made bitterly recognizable by smart dialogue and top-drawer acting.

Still, I was a bit thrown by the lack of even one hint of guilt on the part of Cecilie, whose capriciousness -- inadequately established in the crucial early scenes of the film -- makes her substantially less interesting as a character. No such charges can be leveled against Steen's Marie, who gets to exhibit a full and consistently truthful range of reactions to Niels' infidelity. It's a far cry from the average U.S.-made weeper, in which the role of the jilted spouse is to enjoy a scene or two of subdued hand-wringing and then disappear for extended stretches of the story.

The upshot of Bier/Jensen's Dogme-atic downer is that everybody hurts, and nobody gets what he or she wants. But at least "Open Hearts" has the wherewithal to follow through on its dramatic dalliances, no matter how gloomy the prospect.

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