Open Hearts (2002)
Coming off an Oscar win in the Best Foreign Language Film category for In A Better World and nominated for After The Wedding a few years prior, Suzanne Bier has to be considered one of the higher profile women in world cinema. And yet, beyond these two films I hadn’t watched any of her other work. I perhaps shamefully watched the, admittedly really great, English adaptation of Brothers and thus am less driven to watch her presumably great original version. As such, Open Hearts seemed like a good place to start, especially since it is a Dogme 95 film.
Knowing that the film is Dogme 95 certified, it was rather disruptive having the film open on a brief interlude shot in infrared with music overlaid. But it resolves quickly to the gritty, low-res look that is pretty much the standard. We see Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) propose to his girlfriend Cecille (Sonja Richter) and within two scenes see them as a charming and deeply in love couple, though Cecille expresses some concerns about the safety Joachim’s rock climbing trip. Unfortunately, he is hit by a car as he is climbing out of the car to leave on the trip and is paralyzed. Marie (Paprika Steen) is the drive of the car and her husband Niels (Mads Mikkelsen) is a doctor where Joachim is being treated. Niels reaches out to Cecille as she and Joachim have no family in Denmark.
Niels and Marie have three children, daughter Stine, who was in the car with her mother, and two sons, one of whom charmingly insists he is gay after his father informs him he can’t have a horse because horses are for girls. This could be a bit offensive as gender norm enforcement but Niels concession that he would get a horse for his son if he were gay at least humanizes him a little. He may be drawing gender lines but at least he doesn’t seem to be homophobic. Ultimately, the film follows these two families as they respond to this one tragic incident.
The Dogme 95 movement continues to really impress me, as does Suzanne Bier. There are some awkward edits here and there but the overwhelming impression is of the raw and real emotion. Joachim, paralyzed, lashes out and pushes away Cecille, naturally feeling undeserving of affection and she increasingly relies on Niels for emotional support. For all the heaviness of the scenario, there are enough moments of levity to keep it from being just a miserable viewing experience. The acting all around really carries all this off in top form.
Spoiler Section: The real dramatic conflict here is with Cecille and Niels affair. This could easily feel like overblown drama but it just feels so authentic. There was a time where infidelity was a heavy mark against a film, impossible for me to sympathize with. I reckon it is a sign that I’ve lost my romantic idealism (or naivety) in that I’m generally willing to go with it now. It now seems more or less a fact of life and the true test isn’t the lack of infidelity but the ability of people to not let it destroy their lives. This film certainly handles that balance with respect to the characters.