Susannne Bier’s Open Hearts, the latest film shot under the guidelines of Dogma 95’s “vow of chastity,” opens with a marriage proposal and ends not with a union but with disintegration. Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Cecilie (Sonja Richter) are engaged, although domestic bliss is not in their future: about to depart on a mountain climbing trip, Joachim is struck by a passing automobile while kissing his fiancée goodbye in their car doorway. The driver is Marie (Paprika Steen), who has struck Joachim unintentionally after foolishly obeying her argumentative child Stine’s (Stine Bjerregaard) requests to drive faster. At this precise moment, their lives come to an abrupt and momentous halt.
Learning that the accident has left Joachim a quadriplegic, Marie decides to have her nebbish husband Niels (Mads Middlesen), a doctor at the local hospital, personally look after the distraught Cecilie, not realizing the life-altering ramifications of her request. Niels falls madly in love with Cecilie, and their clandestine romance is aided by the bitter Joachim, who pushes Cecilie out of his life with a series of hateful gibes. Niels takes Cecilie furniture shopping, and the two have a grand time trying out elevating mattresses (a salesman calls one particular brand the “the Ferrari of mattresses”); the juxtaposition of their tasteless glee with Joachim sitting upright in his raised hospital bed straining to use an automatic page turner hammers home Bier’s point that unalterable tragedies force people to find comfort and solace in unexpected, and sometimes cruel and destructive, ways.
Biers makes the mistake of focusing too heavily on the machinations of adulterous behavior—the couple furtively call each other on cellphones, meet to have sex and eat pizza, and concoct lies to protect their secret—and the film, by settling into a typical “cheating spouse” routine, sabotages much of its dramatic momentum. Niels and Cecilie’s tryst is soon discovered by Stine and Marie, and Neils is faced with a choice: to dispatch his paramour and return to the monotonously cozy confines of his middle-class home, or abandon his family for a chance at wild, unpredictable love with Cecilie. As with most Dogma films, Open Hearts has an unattractively scraggly home video appearance, and Biers crafts her familiar story with equal doses of austerity and sympathy. The director intercuts many of her scenes with grainy close-ups of the characters’ facial or body features (an eye, two intertwined hands, a mouth), providing subliminal images of each person’s desperate longing for a happy conclusion to their tumultuous situation. What they end up with is something more muted, imperfect, but nonetheless worth living for.