There was talk that Dogme was dead, or at least speculation regarding its future. But now Denmark’s Susanne Bier has re-awakened the movement with her powerful new film Open Hearts. The story begins with happy young couple Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Cecilie (Sonja Richter) who are soon to be married. One day, however, Joachim steps out of Cecilie’s car into the path of an oncoming vehicle which leaves him paralysed. Marie (Paprika Steen) was driving the car that hits him and both she and her daughter Stine (Stine Bjerregaard), who was in the passenger seat, are traumatised by the accident. Marie’s husband Niels (Mads Mikkelsen) is a doctor at the hospital where Joachim is taken and, to ease Marie’s conscience, attempts to comfort Cecilie. As the weeks pass Cecilie becomes more and more dependent on Neils as Joachim becomes increasingly bitter and hateful towards her. They begin a passionate affair but must decide whether they are willing to risk destroying Neils’ marriage and family.
The Dogme 95 manifesto was an attempt to strip away the sensationalism and ‘cosmetics’ of cinema. It shares much with the Italian neo-realist movement of the 1940s and 50s which attempted to impose rules of only using location shooting, natural lighting, documentary style and free camera movement. Dogme 95 shares these rules, but also insists on no additional soundtrack, props or effects; action must be set only in the present and shot in the Academy 35 mm format. The first shots of this film immediately break two of the Dogme rules, with street scenes filmed in photographic negative and a pop-song played as the sound track. Although Bier adheres closely to Dogme rules for the majority of the film, the opening is an indication that the Brotherhood (the Dogme founders, Lars Von Trier, Thomas Winterburg et al) are a tad more relaxed than they were back in 1995.
The first half-hour of Open Hearts resembles the film that sparked the Dogme movement, Lars Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves (1996): a loving young couple is split apart when the man becomes paralysed, turns bitter, and shuns his girlfriend. Fortunately the narrative does not continue to explore the tragic destruction of Cecilie, as Breaking The Waves does with Bess (Emily Watson). Bier rather chooses to use Dogme to show emotional struggle without overstating the point. When Neils falls for Cecilie, we are forced to try and understand why he is willing to destroy his family. He seems to be searching for his youth again with the younger and more attractive Cecilie, and for the excitement and passion that he has lost with Marie. In a scene in a furniture shop Neils and Cecilie are acting like young lovers, with Neils joking and showing off to his girlfriend in front of the shop assistant. It’s a humorous scene, but it also plays on a much deeper level; we see the superficiality of the relationship, the white sterility of the brand new bed serving as a contrast to his warm and familiar marital bed.
Open Hearts is concerned, as Bier has mentioned in many interviews, with the fragility of life. Initially it is Joachim’s accident which plays on this theme but it is the effect of his accident on others that forms the film’s main narrative. Cecilie begins as the victim, as her life is turned upside-down and her future with Joachim is torn away. Yet it is Marie who takes over the victim role, with Cecilie and Neils’ affair taking away her stability and future happiness. It is not just the fragility of the human body that this film draws attention to, but the fragile and fickle nature of human emotions – and it is the Dogme style that displays and explores these themes so effectively. It is a style that unarguably adds to the atmoshere of reality, helped here by naturalistic and understated acting throughout. Dogme films should continue to concern themselves with realistic situations that are engaging and moving without being overwhelmingly pessimistic and depressing: previous films have done this to the point where it becomes predictable, which in turn completely undermines Dogme’s original ideology. Open Hearts is a powerfully moving and engaging film which, hopefully, will help to restate the case for Dogme filmmaking.