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« Pushkin, "Кто из богов мне возвратил" | Main | The Body Snatcher »

Open Hearts

We are, said a wise man a long time ago, nothing more than the sum of our choices. Freewill remains the constant in the universe that allows our lives to rotate with the planets or in counterpoise, but in each case with distinctive energy that some of us humble dreamers dare to call souls. What is strange about these two assertions is that people disassociate freewill from any type of faith because, they claim, faith involves submission, accepting one's destiny, and, most criminally, divesting oneself of any responsibility for one's decisions. Now I am all for freewill. I truly believe that with determination, persistence, and optimism (and, admittedly, some luck), just about anything can be achieved. One man can choose not to retaliate and inspire a whole multiethnic nation to walk the path of least resistance; one woman can devote her life to helping those whom the world wishes were never born; and a man who survived orphanages, war, P.O.W. camps, cancer, expatriation, and one of the most brutal and oppressive regimes in modern history can win the Nobel Prize for literature. In addition to their faith, all of these heroes – and it is much harder to be a hero when you choose not to resort to violence – share an indomitable will. A will to do what is morally right for the world, even if such a scenario costs them everything they hold dear. Of course, it is not the task of every person to enact mass reform, nor to lead millions onto the righteous path, nor to sacrifice himself for the greater good of mankind. No, to most of us hyperbole does not apply. Most of us have enough to deal with in the small ambit of our private life, a locus which can be just as tragic as a national catastrophe. Which brings us to this film about choice.

We are introduced to two couples at different stages of their development. The first, young and freshly engaged, are Cecilie (Sonja Richter) and Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Life began the day they met and has improved as they have grown together, sharing the tender smiles of those who understand fate as the reflection of our desires and the influence of something greater still. It is in the rays of this omnipotent sun that they bask, drunk on the sweetness of things, in love so wonderful and profound that we suspect that it cannot last for the entirety of a motion picture. Indeed, they stay enamored and cooing until Joachim gets out of a parked car and is promptly run down by a motorist who never saw him. That motorist is Marie (Paprika Steen), and her collision with Joachim can be attributed to an argument she was having at the wheel with her hellcat teenage daughter Stine. 

Marie is half of the second couple in our love trapezoid with her surgeon husband, Niels (Mads Mikkelsen). Now in their mid- to late thirties, Niels and Marie lead a steady bourgeois life with three children and a comfortable home in one of Copenhagen's more privileged quarters; in other words, this idyllic structure is as likely to crumble as the blissful, energetic, and impecunious world of Cecilie and Joachim. And fate's wicked game has already assumed its course: upon learning how Joachim ended up in his hospital's intensive care unit, Niels feels a certain affection towards Cecilie, who is much younger and lovelier than his loyal wife. He begins, as men are supposed to do when they court, with small gifts of his time and money. Once the extent of Joachim's injury has been fully ascertained, however, Niels feels obliged to replace the lost happiness that Cecilie might never find again and let her love blossom anew – or some other excuse for what he lacks in his marriage. After all, it was Niels's wife and daughter who took away Cecilie's love, so wouldn't all be fair in the solar system if he could restore some of her trust in human bonds? Not to mention that Joachim, given the severity of his injury, has nothing but the nastiest words for the person he once loved.

Without making light of the talent on hand, as well as the sublime threads that intertwine at just the right moments, the plot as described above could have been culled from any ordinary soap opera and kicked out to its melodramatic limits. Yet the four actors weave their emotions slowly, hesitatingly, as if unsure what the next scene will bring and cognizant that what they say might be later held against them. What we witness is the finest form of semi-improvisation possible in cinematic form, and one rarely employed in the inevitable plots of inevitable commercial films with inevitable revenues. Open hearts, a rather poor pun on Niels's profession and the amenability of his heart and that of Cecilie's to overcome societal obstacles and attempt a life together, has a certain appeal yet does not translate the original Danish, Elsker dig for evigt ("Love you forever"). The simplicity of that last phrase and the decision to pronounce it sincerely to another human being, that may be the hardest choice of all.

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