- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

What is it with the Continentals these days? On top of stiff-arming our war plans, they're making some disturbingly odd films.
Last year's most applauded foreign movie was "Talk to Her," a warped love story about obsessive men and comatose women, directed by Spain's Pedro Almodovar. Spain, actually, is a good American ally, and Mr. Almodovar is up for a couple of Oscars, so let's not dwell on the oddity that was "Talk."
The Danes have a weird little offering of their own in "Open Hearts," a circuitous tale of adultery and … paralysis.
I don't know what's going on in the hospitals of Europe these days, but apparently they're the place to make love connections. Whatever happened to bars and discotheques? Or even AA meetings?
Anyway, "Open Hearts" is directed by Susanne Bier, and it opens with a winsome young couple on the brink of engagement at a Copenhagen restaurant.
Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), the handsome, adventurous type, is about to head off for some kind of extreme sports excursion in Patagonia, much to the anxiety of his nubile fiancee.
Not to worry, he says to the gorgeous Cecilie (Sonja Richter), who works as a cook. (I have been to Copenhagen recently, and let me tell you, the cooks and everybody else, for that matter really are that attractive.)
Then you can almost feel it coming, as Joachim jokes about how dangerous kitchen utensils are wham! A freak accident. Joachim is hit by a speeding car, shattering his spine and paralyzing him from the neck down.
That's when the romance as the Euros define it begins.
OK, pay attention here. Turns out the husband of the woman who was driving the car that hit Joachim is a doctor, Niels, who works at the hospital where Joachim is being treated.
A wimpy, suggestible kind of guy, the bespectacled Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), with permission from his responsible-feeling wife, Marie (the spicily named Paprika Steen), starts visiting Cecilie's flat and soon falls in love with her.
Angry at the universe, Joachim shuts out Cecilie and sends her into the arms of our naughty doctor, who even springs for his paramour's expensive new furniture furniture he can ill afford. (You gotta love the egalitarian Scandinavians; even doctors are just scraping by like the rest of us poor schlubs.)
Now, I don't know if this is how grieving Danes behave, but it does make for interesting drama interesting in a clinical, detached sort of way.
I'm still pretty much convinced that hospital drama is best left to the daytime soaps, which can revel in that kind of kitsch without feeling guilty in the morning.
Which reminds me of a funny thing about "Open Hearts": It almost looks like a soap opera. That's because it was filmed according to the guidelines of something called the Dogme 95 manifesto.
For the uninitiated, the manifesto, signed by a group of Danish directors in 1995, challenges filmmakers to make movies without the aid of props, artificial lighting, makeup or dramatic musical scores.
Ironically, this naturalistic approach to filmmaking looks just as stylized as the highly stylized movies the Dogme credo rejects. Stylized and pretty ugly.
It does force directors to concentrate on storytelling, though, and Miss Bier elicits some superb performances from her cast. Miss Steen, in the age-old role of woman scorned, actually makes something fresh out of it.
She is complex and palpably human, by turns confrontational and angry, pleading and pliant, on an emotional arc that real women might experience in such a situation.
Another standout is Stine Bjerregaard as Niels and Marie's daughter. Her complex role a teenage girl, herself recently dumped, jealous of her dad's affair was tricky to play, and the young actress negotiates it well.
It's ultimately impossible, though, to get over the preposterousness of the "Open Hearts" premise.
Love may be blind, irrational and inexplicable but not this blind, irrational and inexplicable. No, not even in Europe.

TITLE: "Open Hearts" in Danish with English subtitles
RATING: R (Strong language, simulated intercourse, nudity, mature subject matter)
CREDITS: Directed by Susanne Bier. Produced by Vibeke Windelov. Written by Miss Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen.
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

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