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Dogme95, the set of movie-making standards promulgated (with tongue only partly in cheek) by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, certified its first film, Celebration, in 1998. Since then 30 more films have met the Dogme criteria which range from required hand-held cameras to prohibition of artificial lighting to no credit for the director. (The latter must refer to on-screen credits, since the Dogme website carefully lists the director of each film.) The underlying goal is far more important than the details of technique; Dogme95 aims for "truth" in character-driven films untarnished by technological frou-frou and auteuristic egotism.
The resulting films are a wildly diverse group, from The Idiots (which won high approval from culturevulture.net reviewer Gary Mairs) to the charming Italian for Beginners to the truly awful Reunion. Open Hearts takes the Dogme principals to its open heart and succeeds in telling an engrossing, character-driven story about what happens to a family and a young couple when their lives cross as a result of an automobile accident.
Cecilie (Donja Richter), a chef, becomes engaged to her lover, Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a geographer. He’s about to leave on a trip to Patagonia to go rock climbing; she worries about the dangers which he shrugs off. Before he leaves, he is accidentally hit by a car and left paralyzed from the neck down. His angry response is to shut out Cecilie and to spew venom at the patient nurses in the hospital. Cecilie is loyal and wants to be there for him; she is anguished by his rejection. "If I love you enough, " she says to him, "you’ll love yourself one day." He scoffs that she’s been listening to too many pop lyrics. At one point she lies on top of him on his hospital bed and tries to wrap his lifeless arms around herself.
Marie (Paprika Steen) was driving the car that hit Joachim. She and her teen-age daughter, Stine,were arguing at the time; both feel guilty about the accident. Marie’s husband, Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), is a physician and it is he who breaks the news of Joachim’s condition to Cecilie. Marie encourages him to offer counsel to Cecilie. While Marie and Neils have a happy family (two young sons in addition to Stine), their sex life seems to be in neutral. Cecilie’s acute neediness draws Neils to her and they begin an affair.
Every character in this scenario is written and acted with intelligence, sensitivity, and insight into the relationships and emotional states that is right on the mark. There’s not a moment that feels false or forced. All the characters are decent, likable people faced with the complications that life dishes up and working them through. It’s impossible not to care for all of them and for their destinies as conflicting needs and responsibilities are expressed, confronted and worked out.
Open Hearts has occasional moments of humor, leavening the proceedings, but growing naturally out of the characters, not tacked on gratuitously for comic relief. Director Susanne Bier skillfully steers a story that easily could have slipped into melodrama and sentimentality, instead keeping it warm, dry, and psychologically plausible.