At heart, `Open Hearts' is a soap

March 21, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

What happens to a soap opera when you blow the suds away and take out the melodies? Are you left with unvarnished truth or a more ascetic soap opera?

That's the conundrum posed by Open Hearts, a movie that applies the chastening techniques of the Danish Dogme95 movement - handheld camera, natural sound and light - to a story that would suit General Hospital.

A warm-hearted blonde (Sonja Richter) and her lover (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) get engaged just before he's run down by a child-distracted housewife (Paprika Steen) whose husband (Mads Mikkelsen) works at the hospital where the victim wakes up a quadriplegic. The fiance, unable to control his anger and self-pity, tries to keep Richter from feeling any hope. She turns to Mikkelsen for counsel. Suddenly, Mikkelsen, the responsible father of three, is offering her romantic consolation. Soon he's acting snippy with his competent, anxious-for-affection wife and goading his already disrespectful teen-age daughter (Stine Bjerregaard) - morose over a high-school breakup and guilty over urging Mom, "Drive faster!" - into outright rebellion.

In the act, it's at least less predictable than it is on paper. The director, Susanne Bier (who co-wrote the script with Anders Thomas Jensen), lets the characters' confusions linger in the air; she doesn't force any resolutions, even at the end. Audiences respond to the whipping-up of mixed emotions: the petulant daughter growing in front of our eyes as she confronts the mistress of her father; his hurt yet still-hopeful wife watching him reconnect with her kids. Thanks to the lively performers, even the obligatory scene of the sober-sided medic springing loose and going on a shopping spree with his new love has a welcome fizz to it.

But the familiar mechanics of the situation (secret phone calls, pathetic new living arrangements) keep intruding and, indeed, prove so confining that they prevent any cutting or surprising revelations.

Without the playfulness of the best Dogme95 movies, Mifune and Italian for Beginners, all Open Hearts provides is a chance to luxuriate in feelings more refined than the bathos of blatant romantic melodramas. It's a soaper with a high grade of imported soap.

Sun Score: ***

Open Hearts

Starring Sonja Richter, Mads Mikkelsen, Paprika Steen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Stine Bjerregaard

Directed by Susanne Bier

Released by Newmarket

Time 114 minutes

Rated R

In Danish (English subtitles)

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