From time to time, even your intrepid film reviewer has been
faced with his own romantic travails. Over the years, in those
moments of introspection and doubt, the question that has
crossed my mind more than any other is, “How serious is this
relationship anyway? Would [insert name here] devote her life
to taking care of me if I got cancer or something? Would I
be willing to do that for her?” Maybe that’s kind of a fucked-up
test, I don’t know. But at least now I can take some solace
in the knowledge that I’m not the only one troubled by the
possibility of such a scenario—now there’s a movie about it.
The film is Open Hearts, from Danish director Susanne
Bier. Bier’s previous work (The One And Only, Once
In A Lifetime) has been popular in her homeland, but has
not made much of a splash on our side of the pond. Open
Hearts also represents Bier’s first foray into the Dogme
95 format. Originally founded by a group of Danish filmmakers,
members of Dogme 95 believe that films have gone in a terrible
direction since the 1960s—too much emphasis on the technical
and artistic aspects of filmmaking, and too little emphasis
on characters and plot. Anyone who makes a film in accordance
with their “Vow of Chastity,” which includes such things as
a ban on sets, props, genres, special lighting, or soundtracks,
can get a Dogme seal at the beginning of his or her film.
(There are 31 Dogme films so far, several of which are American.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it—Open Hearts
is the first one I’ve seen. Interested? Check out their
In any case, Open Hearts was a Danish mega-hit. One
in ten Danes has seen it, and it was nominated for nine of
the “Robert Film Awards,” the Danish equivalent of the Oscars.™
But the subject matter of Open Hearts almost precludes
a similar response among happy-go-lucky American film audiences.
Cecilie (Richter) and Joachim (Kaas) are a young,
beautiful couple, ecstatically enamored with each other. He
proposes to her in a very early scene, then is almost immediately
hit by a car. The accident leaves him paralyzed from the neck
down, with no hope of recovery. Joachim is no Christopher
Reeve—instead of optimistically claiming he will walk
again, he is consumed with rage at anyone who comes near him.
At first he refuses to speak to Cecilie; later he screams
at her, and finally he refuses to allow her in the room.
At this point the movie takes a turn. Marie (Steen),
who was driving the car that hit Joachim, is consumed with
guilt. Her husband Neils (Mikkelsen) is a doctor at
Joachim’s hospital, and she asks him to keep an eye on Cecilie,
who is holding vigil there. Spurned by her fiancé and going
through a horrible tragedy, Cecilie is desperate for affection
and attention. The two soon begin an affair.
Why Neils would begin an extramarital relationship is never
explained terribly well. The film suggests that he might have
gotten bored with his wife, but he hardly seems miserable.
Instead, he comes across as rather flat—hardly the type to
be carried away by lust, love, or even pity. As the movie
progresses, the relationship between Cecilie and Neils moves
to the center, pushing to the margins concerns over the accident’s
aftermath. Thus the question of the characters’ motivation
in conducting this affair is an important one, and the film
does not address the issue as effectively as it should. It
is true that I’ve never had a quadriplegic fiancé, and I would
be the first to concede that I might see things differently
if I did, but the scent of implausibility here did tickle
my nostrils. Wouldn’t Cecilie just feel horribly guilty? Such
an important plot device needs to be far better explained.
The first half or so of Open Hearts is a compelling
meditation on the nature of commitment, as Cecilie appears
to struggle with conflicting emotions: guilt over being the
one who can walk, love for Joachim, dread of the life she
will have to lead if she stays with him, and anger at him
for being such a prick. The second half continues this exploration
of commitment through a device that is more mundane, but no
less emotionally destructive, than Joachim’s horrible accident:
the extramarital affair. But the latter parts of the movie
do not live up to the first; the affair that dominates the
second half of Open Hearts seems only distantly related
to the events that brought it about. As such, the movie even
becomes somewhat clichéd: It begins to circle around whether
Neils’ wife will find out, and whether he wishes to leave
her. Abandoned are the far more compelling considerations
that Cecilie is cheating on her quadriplegic fiancé, and that
he, in turn, is in that condition because of Neils’ wife.
The two narratives are reintegrated in the film’s last few
minutes, whereupon the film regains its thoughtfulness. Overall,
however, parts of the film are brilliant, and parts are dull;
the whole comes out somewhere in the middle.