Published March 4, 2003
The best movie I have seen so far this year is Open Hearts, a Dogme 95 film directed by Susanne Bier from a script she co-wrote with the great Anders Thomas Jensen, who also co-wrote Mifune and The King is Alive, two other Dogme productions that are among the best films of recent years. The Danish title, Elsker Dig For Evigt, means “Love You Forever,” but the savage irony of such a title appended to this harrowing drama of life-shattering injury, guilt and infidelity was apparently thought to be too much for Americans, and the more Hollywoodish “Open Hearts” was substituted.
It tells the story of two couples whose lives are intertwined. Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a geography student, and CFcilie (Sonja Richter), a cook, get engaged in the opening scene. Their affection for one another expresses itself in a kind of playfulness that is echoed in the relationship of the second couple, Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), a doctor, and his wife Marie (Paprika Steen). Niels is overworked and he and Marie are having some problems with their rebellious teenage daughter, Stine (Stine Bjerregaard), but otherwise they seem blissfully happy. The continuous banter between Joachim and CFcilie only comes near touching seriousness for a moment when Joachim announces that he is going off mountain climbing with some friends.
“I don’t want to be a widow at 25,” says CFcilie.
“Nothing will happen. I promise,” says Joachim.
She drives him to the station, and as he steps out of the car he is knocked down by a car driven by Marie as she turns her attention from the road to an argument she is having with Stine. Joachim’s spine is crushed and he becomes a quadriplegic. Naturally, Marie feels terrible. Niels, who happens to work in the hospital where Joachim is taken, tries to reassure her. “It’s not your fault.” Of course, Marie doesn’t feel any less guilty, and she urges Niels to comfort CFcilie, who is in a virtual state of shock. She, too, is inclined to blame herself for what has happened, especially when Joachim, after being told bluntly by another doctor that “You will never be able to feel anything again from the neck down,” refuses to see her. “You’re going to have to let me in on this,” she says to him, desperately looking for a way to share his misfortune. But he tells her to go away and not come back.
“It isn’t your fault,” Niels tells her.
The doctor’s reassurance is comically irrelevant to both women, though it is no more than is expected of him. You know the old saying: it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you place the blame. Marie pushes Niels and CFcilie together and they begin an affair. Stine’s sense of guilt, less evident than her mother’s, nevertheless festers beneath the surface along with all her other grievances against her parents and the adult world in general. It expresses itself in an obsession with hunting down the evidence of and then exposing her father’s affair. When she knocks on CFcilie’s door and confronts her, calling her a tart, CFcilie’s only reaction is to tell her that it isn’t her fault, what happened to Joachim. This makes Stine blurt out that she had told her mother to go faster. She later apologizes to her father, but it is too late to keep the family from breaking up.
Ms Bier, who has a reputation in Denmark for comedy, told Laura Winters of the New York Times that, “When I started working with [Jensen], we were going to do the comedy to end all comedies . . .I guess we didn’t.” And yet there is also a certain black comedy in the midst of the film’s unrelieved emotional grimness which makes its pathos somehow more touching than it would otherwise be. When Marie is forced by Stine’s intervention to acknowledge Niels’s affair, she says to him: “Is that the kind of team we are now? I run over the boyfriend and you f*** what’s left?”
Most of the humor, though hardly of the ha-ha kind, is to be found in Joachim’s relationship with Hanne (Birthe Neumann), the nurse who looks after him and who patiently — apart from a single moment when she allows herself to hit (metaphorically) back — bears the brunt of his corrosive bitterness. His brightly obscene taunts to her and others come to seem like expressions of a kind of liberation from convention that is his only compensation for his injury. Having lost everything, he has at least the satisfaction of being the ultimate winner in the game of guilt and reproach that the others rather pointlessly continue to play, and therefore he can say anything he wants.
But it doesn’t quite end like that. “I wanted to talk about forgiveness,” Ms. Bier told Laura Winters, “and the way that love demands immense generosity.” Boy does it ever! Finally, Joachim manages to switch off the bitterness as if it had been just a game to him — as perhaps it was and will be again — and he says to CFcilie: “We were just unlucky. There’s no reason for you to suffer. Sweet, wide-fingered CFcilie, good-bye.” It remains unclear how far his act of magnanimity and forgiveness will be replicated elsewhere, but there is something almost operatic about its unbearable poignancy, and it is reminiscent to me of the the final acts of The Marriage of Figaro or Der Rosenkavalier. All the performances are good, but Mr Lie Kaas’s and Miss Neumann’s and Stine Bjerregaard’s are beyond praise.