Newly engaged and adorably adoring of her rock-climber beau, a pretty young Copenhagen woman's life is thrown into despair and chaos when her lover is crushed under a speeding Volvo just as she kisses him goodbye for a weekend climbing expedition.
Emotionally bewildered in a way that transcends the screen (through director Susanne Bier's penetrating, low-key, handheld photography), Cecilie (Sonja Richter) sits all alone in the hospital waiting to hear if and how her man will survive. But her aching disorientation really takes hold in this Danish minimalist film "Open Hearts" after Cecilie finds herself spurned by the now-paralyzed Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) -- who is lashing out at the world in anger and bitterness.
Soon she falls into an affair with a doctor (Mads Mikkelsen) at the hospital -- a doctor who feels responsible for her well-being because it had been his wife (Paprika Steen) behind the wheel of the Volvo.
Such tragic entanglements inspire evocative performances in this compelling story about perseverance and compassion gone askew -- especially from beautiful, sad-eyed Steen ("Max," "Mifune," "Dancer In the Dark") and 16-year-old Stine Bjerregaard, playing the couple's teenage daughter who quickly sees through her father's feeble attempts to cover up the affair. The heartbreak and sense of betrayal felt by mother and daughter -- mixed with the emotional weight of a terrible responsibility (the girl feels guilty as well because their fighting distracted her mom at the time of the accident) -- permeates almost every scene in the last act, even when they're not on screen.
Bier inspires exceptionally raw empathy for all her emotionally vulnerable characters as their relationships become increasingly thorny. She infuses "Open Hearts" with bracing cinematic realism (certified by the Danish minimalist filmmaking collective Dogme95, the movie was made without most accoutrements of modern filmmaking) while also penetrating Cecilie's flashes of wishful fantasy in which Joachim can at least hold her hand -- and his resentment has subsided enough that he wants to.
But while the director always has your heart firmly in her hand as the slowly-building adulterous affair recklessly gathers speed, the movie does hit several false notes -- most of which seem to be noteworthy oversights in the screenplay Bier co-wrote with Anders Thomas Jensen (who helped script two other Dogme films, "The King is Alive" and "Mifune").
After the immediate shock of the accident, the mother and daughter are not seen in the kind of anguish any reasonable person would expect -- in fact, that night the family hosts the girl's 16th birthday party. And resolutions for these two characters' arcs are notably absent from the film's finale.
We never see Cecilie seeking the condolence of friends or family, even by phone. There's no exploration of why the doctor seems lacking in the ethical wherewithal to step back from this ill-advised and all-around damaging relationship. And the picture lacks a proper sense of the passage of time. It's hard to tell if it takes place over weeks or months.
But the ardent, unguarded performances that drive "Open Hearts" -- the weary, complex and genuine marital dynamic between Mikkelsen and Steen, Richter's desperate vulnerability as Cecilie, Bjerregaard's quiet resentment as the teenage girl who has lost her innocent admiration for her father, and Kaas's painful spite as Joachim -- have a resonant accumulative tone of authentic poignancy that drowns out the picture's shortcomings.
Run time: 113 mins
In Theaters: Friday 6th September 2002
Distributed by: Newmarket Films
Production compaines: Zentropa Entertainments, Det Danske Filminstitut
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Fresh: 54 Rotten: 2
IMDB: 7.7 / 10
Director: Susanne Bier
Starring: Sonja Richter as Cecilie, Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Joachim, Mads Mikkelsen as Niels, Paprika Steen as Marie, Stine Bjerregaard as Stine, Birthe Neumann as Hanne, Niels Olsen as Finn, Ulf Pilgaard as Thomsen, Ronnie Lorenzen as Gustav, Anders Nyborg as Robert