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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2003
Forcing you to feel their pain
By KAORI SHOJI
Just as excessive sun can have strange effects on people, a long cruel winter will also have repercussions. It's probably no coincidence that the Dogma 95 manifesto (e.g. "The film must not contain superficial action" and "Genre movies are not acceptable") emerged in icy Scandinavia under directors like Lars von Trier ("Dancing in the Dark," "Breaking the Waves"), whose stories seem crafted on the question: "How much emotional pain can I cram into one film?" Dogma directors put their characters through a wringer of psychological extremities, and then coolly step back to watch as they writhe with guilt, desire, indecision.
At times, it's more than a mere movie-goer can bear. When a filmmaker abandons all attempts at entertainment and seeks only open-wound honesty, there's little the audience can do but run for cover or agree to the position of reluctant voyeur of other people's suffering. Actually, it would be nice if we could just peep a little and then walk away, but Von Trier and Co. would never let us off that easily. A good Dogma film will insist on enforced inner speculation of our own lives. By so doing, it reminds us relentlessly of the things we'd rather not face: the frailty of love, the illogic of relationships, our knack for hurting those we love the most.
Director Susanne Bier's "Open Hearts" (released in Japan as "Shiawasena Kodoku") is, in this sense, textbook Dogma: a strenuous workout for the nerves that leaves the viewer (well, this one anyway) shattered and gasping for air. "Open Hearts" is an examination of that modern-day, worst-case scenario of waking up one day to find that the elaborately woven fabric of comfortable, everyday existence has suddenly burned to cinders. As the story unfurls its anguish against the backdrop of an unremitting Copenhagen winter, the characters find themselves trapped in a frozen encasement of introspective pain. We watch helplessly as they claw at the ice with their fingernails, besieged by guilt and the numbing fear that they will never find happiness again.
Their agony goes like this: 23-year-old Cecile (Sonja Richter) is at the peak of her relationship with boyfriend Joachim (Nikolai Lie Kaas). On the night they decide to wed, they get drunk and share perfect sexual bliss. In the morning, Joachim steps out onto the street and is hit by a car. The hospital doctors curtly inform the couple that Joachim will be paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life.
The woman responsible for the accident, Marie (Paprika Steen), is understandably guilt-ridden and asks her husband Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), who coincidentally works at the same hospital, to look after Cecile. He obliges, the result of which incarcerates them both in the grips of an overpowering sexual passion.
For Cecile, the affair is more like sexual therapy to cope with her loss of Joachim. Niels is frightened by the magnitude of his feelings for Cecile and what this will ultimately mean for his family (they have three children). Marie is too crafty to be fooled by her husband's supposedly altruistic motives, but she keeps silent and swallows whatever lies he elects to tell her. The hurt only occasionally cracks the veneer of her placidity. In the meantime, Cecile continues to visit Joachim in his hospital bed, but can do nothing to assuage the intensity of his despair.
While always in danger of slipping into the froth of soap opera, "Open Hearts" remains steadfastly honest, mainly due to Bier's harsh, documentary-style lighting deployed to full advantage (or lack thereof) in claustrophobic close-ups and the amazingly adept performances of the cast. The ones to watch here are the men, especially Mikkelsen as the decent, loving family man whose initial attraction to Cecile rapidly escalates to a tortured and destructive obsession. On the other hand, he's terrified about losing his children and even though he and Marie haven't shared any passion in years, he still honors their marriage enough to turn into a bullshit machine just to spare his wife the hurt of infidelity.
Kaas as Joachim has the difficult and thankless role of being on his back for most of the film. His suffering manifests itself as searing venom directed at Cecile (and on the physical-therapy nurse when she's not around). Quite simply, it's harrowing to witness. In the very first scenes, Joachim is boyishly handsome, jovial and in top-notch physical condition (he's an athlete); five minutes later, we see his features collapse into a wintry crumple as he is told that he will never move again.
After one of Cecile's foiled attempts to convince Joachim of her unfailing loyalty (he rebuffs her each time), he watches her as she turns to flee and for a second, his eyes cloud with longing. Not sexual but a more simple desire, perhaps to put a hand on her arm or to wave an affectionate goodbye. The translation of the Japanese title for this is "Happy Solitude" -- I don't know about the happy, but this is definitely one that invites a solo viewing.