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Open Hearts (R)
(Elsker Dig For Evigt) (Denmark 2003)
Official Site
Director: Susanne Bier
Producers: Jonas Frederiksen, Vibeke Windelov
Written by: Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen
Cast: Sonja Richter, Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Paprika Steen

Rating: out of 5

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 site:(http://www.dogme95.dk/) 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.

—Mike O’Connor


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