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Unfaithful

'Open Hearts' shakes up the Dogme 95 movement

By Richard von Busack

After about eight years of Dogme 95, moviegoers are accustomed to the shaky camera work, the bleak yellow Scandinavian sunlight, the emotional crises of various stocky Danish blondes, the holy Down syndrome case wandering in and out of frame. A new Dogme generally no longer seems like a challenge to too-smooth Hollywood work, and here's why: it's not a break from the hazards of too much style, but a surrender to too much style.

These films can be so similar they're literally dogmatically made. Which is why Susanne Bier's Open Hearts (a.k.a. Elsker Dig For Evigt) is a pleasant surprise. It reclaims that same essential freshness that made Breaking the Waves stand out from all of the other films of its time.

Open Hearts' script by Dogme workhorse Anders Thomas Jensen (The King Is Alive, Mifune) shuns melodrama, despite the fact so much of it takes place in a hospital. This is the most plausible Dogme 95 film yet made. Watching this bracing character study, you can newly appreciate the Dogme approach to drama, here applied to a story of a marriage under siege.

Like Breaking the Waves, the set-in-Copenhagen Open Hearts has a physically paralyzed hero. At the beginning of the film, Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) breaks his neck when he's hit by a car. The driver of the car, Marie (Paprika Steen), had been fighting with her teenage daughter while driving. Marie's husband Niels (Mads Mikkelsen) is a doctor at the nearby hospital, and he does his best to bring Joachim around. However, this newly paralyzed young man is in a black depression. He refuses to endure the presence of Cecilie (Sonja Richter), his fiancee, ordering her out of the room when she visits, screaming at her to get out of his bed when she tries to crawl in and comfort him.

The horrible accident was bad enough, and Cecilie was there when it happened--she'd just kissed Joachim goodbye right before he was clobbered by Marie's car. But Joachim's bitter refusal to have anything to do with her makes Cecilie a basket case just like him. She seeks out the doctor Niels for comfort. Niels' sense of pity is inflamed by the grieving younger woman. And she is a looker, to be sure; Sonja Richter has the most irresistibly spacey grin since Luke Wilson. The two stumble into an affair, despite knowing better. And Niels does a lousy job of covering up.

The part of the wronged wife in a movie about adultery is one of the toughest roles there is to play. We naturally sympathize with persecuted lovers--who watches Romeo and Juliet and feels sorry for their parents? A spurned raging wife, who has custom and the law on her side, can often seem like a bully. Marie, as played by Paprika Steen, is a little foreign in this milieu, since she's supposedly originally from East Germany. When trouble strikes you can see how she survived life behind the Berlin Wall. Steen plays her part so well that Open Hearts is balanced; the married couple aren't newlyweds before the trouble starts, but they have a strong yet casual rapport right before the accident. After the discovery of the affair, Marie's boiling mad, but she handles her unfaithful husband so deftly that you can't help but admire her.

Open Hearts is tart and strong, and open-eyed. As a study of the subject of adultery, it reveals the essential silliness and softness of an "adult" picture like Unfaithful--a film full of simple situations and heavy moralizing (and too-tepid sex scenes, for that matter). Bier's sensibility shows that there are still minds at work ready to analyze the ups and downs of marriage. It's all the more likable for leaving the ending open, showing no easy way out, or any one recommended social or religious dogma to follow.


Open Hearts (R; 113 min.), directed by Susan Bier, written by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, photographed by Morten Soborg and starring Sonya Richter, Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Mads Mikkelsen, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the March 26-April 2, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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