Open Hearts (Elsker dig for evigt)

Denmark (2002) Dir. Susanne Bier

If Denmark has gained a reputation over the past few years for their grim, moody crime thrillers or tightly wound political dramas via TV then its cinema output is on hand to remind us they are just as capable of gritty, realistic domestic dramas too.

A simple story based on a complex situation, recently engaged young couple Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Cecilie (Sonja Richter) have their lives turned upside down when Joachim is hit by a car driven by Marie (Paprika Steen) and is paralysed as a result.

Niels (Mads Mikkelsen) a doctor at the hospital happens to be Marie’s husband, so he makes an effort to support Cecilie. When Joachim continually pushes Ceciile away despite her devoted daily visits, she turns to Neils for comfort and soon an affair begins.

The Dogme 95 movement is usually associated with its creators Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg and is totemic of the avant garde side of Danish and world cinema. But not all of its practitioners were male – some female directors dabbled in this esoteric strand of filmmaking, in this instance the celebrated Susanne Bier, who ironically directs the other female Dogme member Paprika Steen here.

Open Hearts is Dogme in terms of its style, minimalist approach and hand held camera work but it subverts many of the rules of the manifesto – the use of music, on screen effects and Biers taking an on screen credit – but since von Trier broke some of these rules in his first film, I doubt any reprimand was administered.

It opens with thermal cam imagining when bier was going to sue throughout the film but found it compromised the overall authenticity of the film. Instead it is used sparingly near the end and for the closing credits. The only other image tampering is the occasional grainy cutaway, usually in close-up to convey or suggest a particular mood or emotion felt by the character on hand.

The central theme of this tale is guilt and how it torments all of the principal players. Naturally Marie is crushed with guilt after running Joachim down – the accident was actually his fault – and wants to make amends in any way possible. Having a doctor husband at the hospital is a convenient but good start.

Joachim’s guilt, as such, appears to stem from thinking he has let Cecilie down by ruining their future and feels he can no longer offer her anything in life. When the affair begins it is tentative, almost functional in providing temporary respite for Cecilie and Niels, the latter standing to lose more being the father of three children.

Unfortunately Niels’s increasing attraction to Cecilie and the amount of time he spends with her is noticed by his teenage daughter Stine (Stine Bjerregaard), herself recently dumped by her boyfriend. But her brazen questioning of her father and hostile attitude is born out of something else as we learn later on, though she is right to be suspicious of her father, just as wife Marie is also beginning to be.

By honouring two of the main Dogme rules – namely the no frills camera work and the use of real locations and not sets – each of the mini scenarios feels not only real but the mise-en-scene borders on the voyeuristic at times. Wide shots are only employed in moments of necessity for multi-cast members or to create a sense of space before resuming the tight shots, other this is shot fairly intimately.

The sense of claustrophobia and hopelessness for Joachim in the tiny hospital room is neatly depicted through the camera, saving us much dialogue and exposition from him to relate this to the audience – we can SEE exactly how uncomfortable the room is and the bleak desperation of Joachim’s plight.

Bier astutely switches camera angles on occasion to dispel any illusions that this is a set, while allowing the focus to shift to whoever else may be in the room, often the friendly older nurse Hanne (Birthe Neumann).

As much as the genuine sets create an atmosphere the natural lighting (another Dogme stipulate) offers some interesting hues and tones to the visuals, often enhancing or complimenting the mood of the scene. One instance in which a distraught Cecilie calls Niels at home while the outside light is pre-dusk perfectly captures the middle ground Cecilie is hopelessly caught in having just been ignored once again by Joachim. This is just one example of the fine eye Bier has for coaxing emotive and resonant drama from the simplest of tools to work with.

Naturally, it helps that the key tools of this operation happens to be a cadre of talented actors possessing the not inconsiderable ability to tell a story through their very beings. Mads Mikkelsen will be the most well known name and face for most but don’t think this is a solo flight for him.

As Niels, Mikkelsen inhabits the everyman role, akin to his superlative turn in The Hunt, as opposed to the testosterone fuelled lead he only takes. It is Paprika Steen as Marie and Stine Bjerregaard who provide the grit and fire as the aggrieved wife and daughter respectively.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas will appear to have the easiest job laying in bed and grimacing angrily at Cecilie but with just his face to work with, he in fact has a tough job in convincing us of the depressive turmoil which consumes the invalid Joachim. Sonja Richter is delightfully buoyant as Cecilie, bouncing between optimism, heartbreak, ecstasy and confusion in a consistently captivating performance.

The Dogme style may not appeal to everyone but Susanne Bier has applied it masterfully to Open Hearts to illustrate that a believable and potent drama can be made without the typical mainstream conventions to weigh it down. A morally provocative and deeply affecting work of rare and genuine emotional depth.