Aching Ids

Love wounds in Spider and Open Hearts

* * *

Open Hearts, a very good new Dogme film by Danish director Susanne Bier, begins with several lives in excellent working order and proceeds by way of domestic tragedy to a full-court emotional train wreck. Cecilie (Sonja Richter), a pretty, high-spirited trainee chef, has just agreed to marry her live-in lover, Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), when he is struck by a passing car and paralyzed from the neck down. The driver, Marie (Paprika Steen), a middle-aged woman in the midst of having a fight with her teenage daughter, turns out to be married to Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), the hospital physician who has taken it upon himself to comfort the distraught Cecilie when her embittered fiancé rejects her. Pretty soon, Cecilie and Niels begin a passionate, fatally unbalanced affair. The rest is carnage.

With a plot straight out of General Hospital, you might expect Open Hearts' family dysfunction to flower into the anarchic mayhem of the first Dogme film, Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration. In fact, after the crash, very little happens, only a quietly achieved flow of telling moments that flag just how badly everyone is losing it. Cecilie, who has managed to stay calm and positive in the face of Joachim's rage, is finally undone when she arrives home from the hospital to find the apartment stripped of her lover's possessions, save for his exercise bike. When Niels, ever the good middle-class burgher, buys her a set of new furniture, the laughter they share as they shop for it is tinged with hysteria. Niels' daughter, racked by guilt that she may have caused the accident, lashes out at her errant father. The wife, who has urged her husband to take an interest in the devastated young woman, comes to wish she hadn't.

Bier has seized on the freedom and spontaneity made possible by the Dogme program—without taking onboard the movement's snooty arrogance toward the mainstream. There's no railing here against "bourgeois cinema" or "bourgeois society," only a tough-minded sympathy for her characters as they struggle to cope with the circumstances inflicted on them, along with the ones they've created themselves. The rawness of the filmmaking simply reflects the ungovernability of the feelings. Late in the movie, Marie (played by the wonderful Steen, who has—pardon my bourgeois usage—starred in many another Dogme film), a wry, capable mother of three who has just learned of Niels' affair, breaks down and clings to her husband, begging him to stay with her. Later, there will be candor and dignity enough, but this is the movie's naked moment of truth, in which we see that grace under pressure, that pretty little Hollywood fiction, has next to nothing to do with life.

Spider was directed by David Cronenberg; adapted by Patrick McGrath from his novel; produced by Cronenberg, Samuel Hadida and Catherine Bailey; and stars Ralph Fiennes. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana;Open Hearts was directed by Susanne Bier; written by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen; produced by Vibeke Windelov; and stars Sonja Richter and Mads Mikkelsen. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.

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