Open Hearts

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January 6, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

While my father sits downstairs watching Roger Moore ham it up in Moonraker I decide I might occupy my Sunday afternoon with a film of slightly less creepy sexual dynamics. That being the case, Susanne Bier’s Open Hearts (or Dogme #28 if you’re so inclined) seemed as good an option as any. Scripted by Anders Thomas Jensen, writer and director of Adam’s Apples, and sharing further overlaps with that film through actors Mads Mikkelsen and Paprika Steen, it’s nice to report another strong Danish success for the week.

Starting somewhat awkwardly the film brings us in with the usual tropes of Dogme filmmaking: handheld camerawork, naturalistic acting and dimly lit surroundings abound as we meet a young couple who are very much in love, Joachim and Cæcilie (Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Sonja Richter). One marriage proposal and a quick car accident later and I was beginning to fear the worst for the film. In retrospect it’s perhaps an element of plot structuring that’s very hard to avoid but the film’s initial focus on the young couple’s blissfulness can’t help but strike the viewer as exceedingly forceful and rushed. The result is that it serves more to foreshadow and make comedic the car accident that follows minutes later rather than give us a serious foothold on the characters. Luckily these opening sequences are simply setup and not the real focus of the film. Perhaps a better idea would have been to elide over these scenes and start the film more in the thick of things but it’s only a small issue at any rate.

Following on from this accident which leaves Joachim a quadriplegic we have the emotional mess to clear up and this is where the film really excels. At first the rawness of the nerves the film hits seem overbearing and the film still needs some time to settle in. After all, car accidents and paralysis are so often the preferred tools of lesser brands of filmmaking that sometimes it’s hard to allow for them in more legitimate works. Speaking of lesser artforms I guess “Scrubs” is a major offender and none other than Zack Braff has been slated to direct a remake of this film. I’ll reserve judgment on that until I see it.

Moving back to the film what really becomes the focus is the relationship between Cæcilie and Niels (Mikkelsen), the husband of the woman who hit Joachim with her car. With the accident deemed to be no one’s fault, Niels and his wife (Steen) wish to offer Cæcilie every support as she tries to hold things together. She comes to rely on Niels for emotional support and of course soon their feelings entangle in different ways. Meanwhile Joachim lies in his hospital bed, venomous and bitter to all who try to help him.

The complications and emotions drawn out through this ostensibly simple setup are what give Open Hearts its great power. It follows every line of emotional enquiry as it unearths it, never shying away from the pain and awkwardness of what it uncovers. In this sense we have here a very mature and powerful drama. A genuine film for adults and something mainstream Hollywood seemingly forgot how to make many years ago. The film captures convincingly the ridiculous little conversations couples often have and the actors really don’t put a foot wrong with their chosen lot. As feelings deepen and tough decisions have to be made the tension and drama modulates with perfect naturalism. It’s a very hard thing to do right but Bier and co. are obviously equal to the task.

In the end, as with all good things, we are left with a layer of ambiguities. The film avoids absolutely any sermons or lectures on the actions of the various characters. What is shown here is simply what can happen when circumstance and feelings get the better of us. An interesting and intelligent dimension of the script is Niels’ young daughter Stine who serves as something of a mirror for her father’s behaviour. Her own young love life is not going so well and so her harsh reactions and judgments (which turn out to be more intuitive than most) serve to frame the actions of the various adults. Where love and affection is involved everyone is basically something of a slave, young and old alike, and knowledge or experience can’t really diminish vulnerability. On that note the handling of sexual elements within the film was also wonderfully upfront with a sensuousness generated in the briefly glimpsed moments of passion. It’s a serious indictment of the industry, although not a surprising one, that portrayals of sex that actually mirror reality are so hard to come by.

I suppose a word or two is in order with regards to the Dogme School of filmmaking from which this film takes its cues. It’s probably unsurprising that I think Dogme is, in and of itself, a stupid idea. What Von Trier and Vinterberg imagined was perfectly fine and the issues they sought to address are legitimate. The problem is with their decision to formalise proceedings. This really does open them up to the accusations of attention seeking that they have rightly received. After all, simply looking at Open Hearts we realise it’s hardly a step away from Bergman’s masterful Scenes From a Marriage, an obviously non-Dogme production. Artistic needs should inspire process and not the other way around. This renders any sort of formal code for producing a film fairly pointless. This is hardly helped by the fact that virtually no film has ever actually properly followed the code as laid out. All this is to say, the conception of filmmaking Dogme sought to arrive at is perfectly fine and perfectly legitimate but any real intent to formalise and codify such an aesthetic is the work of the utterly misguided. No surprise then that Von Trier was involved.

What’s unusual then is that the major breaks Open Hearts makes from strict “Dogme dogma” are actually some of the elements I would consider less well advised. None are particularly problematic but various little elements, most notably the use of little sequences shot on Super 8 to illustrate moments of fancy among the characters (especially moments of physical contact—in these Joachim can move) actually serve to undermine dramatic intensity rather than enhance it. The moments were there anyway, they didn’t need visualisation. On the other hand, this same technique offered a somewhat similarly low-key film like Adam and Paul its key moment of dramatic intensity. The technique can pay dividends but Jensen’s script and the actors’ wonderful performances needed no such aid.

There are various other lapses from Dogme principles but they’re hardly worth dwelling on (shock, gasp, they used theatrical blood for the car crash and some non-diagetic sound too). All in all, a superbly well crafted drama and a real pleasure. I suppose I shall always be left to wonder how Denmark has managed to create and develop such a superb film industry while my own country, Ireland, of similar size, population and wealth, achieves almost exactly fuck-all on that count.

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