Adhering to the strict guidelines of Dogme filmmaking, Danish director Susanne Bier takes potentially melodramatic material and strips it down into something quite affecting in the constantly surprising "Open Hearts".
It's all still according to the Dogme 95 manifesto with all its rules regarding the use of nothing other than available ambient light and sound, but unlike most of those previous pared-down efforts, it's Dogme with a strong emotional backbone.
The first of Bier's successful features to be released in North America, Denmark's foreign-language Oscar submission should attract some handsome art house business for distributor Newmarket Films, particularly given its eyebrow-raising premise.
In less capable hands, the story about a doctor who has an intense affair with the woman whose fiance is seriously injured after being hit by a car driven by the doctor's wife would leave a big, messy trail of soapy suds in its path. But Bier, working from a screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen ("The King Is Alive"), deftly brings any hand-wringing notions of tragic fate down to more conceivable, earthbound levels.
Through the effective use of some playful banter, Bier neatly and quickly establishes the attentive, loving relationship between the recently engaged Cecilie (Sonja Richter) and Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas).
Just as swiftly, however, their lives together are brutally altered after the accident that renders Joachim physically and emotionally paralyzed.
As it turns out, Marie (Paprika Steen), the driver of the vehicle that hit him, had been quarreling with her daughter, Stine (Stine Bjerregaard) at the time, and, obviously guilt-ridden, she asks her husband, Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), who works at the hospital where Joachim was taken, to help Cecilie through the ordeal. The professional courtesy ultimately turns very personal as Niels and Cecilie end up falling into each others arms with repercussions that prove to be every bit as shattering as that car accident.
Miraculously, Bier, Jensen and her exceptional cast manage to sidestep every potential wince-inducing, melodramatic land mine, keeping it all very real despite those highly stacked odds.
In the absence of kitchen-sink villains and manipulative string sections (Dogme rules prohibit any kind of dramatic underscoring), a great deal of authentic, unfiltered poignancy is allowed to seep through.
At a point when the whole Dogme exercise seemed to be losing creative steam, along comes Bier with welcome filmmaking substance to invigorate the stripped-down style.
Director: Susanne Bier
Screenwriter: Anders Thomas Jensen
Based on an idea by Susanne Bier
Executive producer: Peter Aalbaek Jensen
Director of photography: Morten Soborg
Editors: Pernille Bech Christensen, Thomas Krag
Music: Jesper Winge Leisner
Cecilie: Sonja Richter
Niels: Mads Mikkelsen
Joachim: Nikolaj Lie Kaas
Marie: Paprika Steen
Stine: Stine Bjerregaard
Running time -- 114 minutes
MPAA rating: R