Five years have passed since the Dogme '95 manifesto kicked off with Thomas Vinterberg's powerful The Celebration, which not only dignified the group's Spartan "tenets" as more than a silly publicity stunt, but also promised an exciting new wave of low-budget, no-frills cinema. Since then, the movement has devolved to such a degree that the "official certification" paper has become cause for a snickering backlash against dozens of films that have followed the ultra-realist rules, but missed the meaning. Finally, that initial promise flickers again in Susanne Bier's intermittently powerful melodrama Open Hearts, which transforms the Dogme limitations into a raw, intense commitment to acting and characterization. Though the plot's soap-opera turns become tidy and predictable, the film shows remarkable attunement and sympathy toward a group of characters whose lives intersect and unravel on a cruel twist of fate. The charming opening scenes suggest the beginnings of a sweet romantic comedy, as Sonja Richter and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, a playful young couple from Copenhagen, profess their eternal love with a few laughs and a gaudy engagement ring. Kaas' impending departure for a rock-climbing expedition raises a red flag, but the city streets prove more dangerous when he's sideswiped by a car, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Consumed with bitterness and self-loathing, Kaas angrily pushes Richter away, which causes her to turn to hospital doctor Mads Mikkelsen, who happens to be the husband of guilt-addled driver Paprika Steen. The intimacy of Richter's counseling sessions with Mikkelsen lead slowly and irrevocably to a physical and emotional relationship that opens up a painful rift in his formerly stable marriage and complicates Richter's steadfast devotion to Kaas. Bier charts these developments with a great understanding of human nature, particularly in the way two people can slip into an affair lightly, even while aware of the wreckage it will cause in their lives. The strongest scenes in Open Hearts consider Richter and Mikkelsen's budding affair non-judgmentally, peering into their destructive bond with honesty, insight, and refreshing pockets of warmth and humor. But once the inevitable consequences are doled out, the film's melodramatic conventions begin to squeeze out some of its tender realism, bringing it closer to a well-executed TV movie. The Dogme signposts are mostly negligible, save for an annoying technique that expresses the characters' occasional desires for affection in grainy "fantasy-cam," then pulls back to reveal the cold truth of their situation. Reality by way of a gimmick: Now, there's the Dogme touch!

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