Just as Lars Von Trier foresaw in his epic-passional manner, the Dogme trendlet is making movies safe for soap opera again. Which sounds like the slam it’s not: Like Italian for Beginners, Susanne Bier’s Open Hearts is full-contact romantic intercourse, although of a considerably more tragic stripe. For all of its wry sedition, the Danish movement’s infinitely teasable “chastity”—manifesting as jump cuts, exposure-challenged imagery, and mock-doc handheld-ness—has almost always boiled down to intimate melodrama. (When it hasn’t, as in Julien Donkey-Boy, it’s been unwatchable.) No other formal approach I’ve seen since China’s Fifth Generational pageantry has so revitalized the ill-labeled “woman’s film.” It’s a cinematic lingua Fassbinder might have jumped on.
Even soapishly titled (the Danish name roughly translates to an equally generic Love You Forever), Bier’s film is rather classically structured—carefully detailed domestic joy is soon squashed by ineluctable cataclysm. We meet Cecilie (Sonja Richter) and Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) just as they get engaged and horse around with lingerie; the next day, Joachim steps out of his car and gets run down by Marie (sour-faced Von Trier axiom Paprika Steen). Her husband Niels (Mads Mikkelsen) happens to be a doctor at the hospital Joachim wakes up in, paralyzed from the neck down. For Joachim, who spits self-pitying bile when he speaks at all, the wedding is decidedly off, and Cecilie slowly transforms the supportive chats with the sympathetic doctor into an affair.
As in Breaking the Waves, the bedridden bedmate is a device of crisis—the focus shifts to Niels’s family of five, climaxing with an uncomfortable walk-out for Dad that is every parent’s idea of every child’s nightmare. However schematic, the movie percolates with immediacy and genuine warmth, from Niels’s bedtime banter with his middle son (“You can come out of the closet when you’re 12 . . . “) to the inevitable confrontations, which are modulated to a soft roar by everyone’s silent understanding of everyone else’s wounds. In orthodox Dogme fashion, Bier keeps her camera claustrophobically close to her actors’ angst-radiating mugs, although what’s motivating the hunky doctor to strip-mine his family is a mystery never investigated. (It could be as simple as noting that Cecilie is a smokin’ 23 and Marie is weathering middle-age poorly, because often that’s all it takes.)
Biers can be over-emphatic (she keeps cutting to Cecilie’s engagement ring, as if we’d forget), and the song interludes by Indonesian blues mistress Anggun only encourage agita. But the acting is unfalteringly intense, and Bier even comes up with a fresh, subtle way to get around Dogme “chastity”: the characters’ impromptu daydreams, shot with an extra scoop of grain and scored by miking the camera’s own buzzing rattle, are cut in like action close-ups. Cecilie’s fantasies are demonstrative of Bier’s sensitivity—regardless of the depth of her affair, she persistently wishes for Joachim to be able to move just one hand, or merely wave goodbye from his hospital bed.
To each his own trauma, but the maniacal American zeal for reliving and remapping our own civil war often plays out like mass psychosis, and perhaps the most rewarding way to endure Ron Maxwell’s Turner Original maxi-movie Gods and Generals is to read it like the national delirium’s EEG. Here is the film reviewer’s equivalent of a close-order drill. Glossing the war’s history from Virginia’s secession to the Battle of Chancellorsville, Maxwell’s 225-minute (with intermission) mudslide is devoid of anything resembling ordinary dramatic momentum—hours are spent in tidily unimpressive battles filled with unenthusiastic extras, the anonymous hordes helpfully subtitled with brigade name and commanding officer (many never introduced as characters). Shot with the TV-movie blahs, the film itself is nothing more than an elaborate reenactment, perfectly mating box-of-rocks acting (bring rotten fruit for Mia Dillon’s Southern matriarch) and repetitious dialogue so scripturally florid Maxwell might qualify for a Comedy Screenplay Golden Globe next January.
Robert Duvall, enjoying the lightest work week of his career, shows up occasionally as Robert E. Lee, but the movie is Stephen Lang’s, if he wants it. Doing a Stonewall Jackson as given to biblical speechifying and heavenward beseechment as Horace Greeley with a head full of bad corn whiskey, Lang thick-cuts his own brand of smoked ham, and at least it musters a unique stink. In any case, Gods and Generals is also a political dodo, giving Northerner Jeff Daniels a riotous politically-correct-about-the-Negroes lesson to intone (there are all of two African American characters in the whole movie, and those are mastuh-lovin’ house slaves), and providing Jackson (!) with a sympathetic rumination on race relations. Most outlandishly, Maxwell hyper-glorifies the Virginian’s battle against “invayduhs,” waving flags in our face and blasting the score’s epic French horns every time one of these crackers leads a few hundred more nitwits to their sanitized deaths in the name of preserving their state’s slave-run sovereignty. It’s a movie Trent Lott would defend, at least in private. If a Confederate flag flying in South Carolina is cause for uproar, how is this movie escaping into theaters without precipitating an NAACP press conference? Ballooning, jingoistic goat spoor, Maxwell’s movie, with its relentless nationalism, mooning over the soldiers’ steeliness of nerve, purity of heart, and evangelical self-justification, is all too relevant today. Unfortunately, in a nation where the word “evildoers” is used by straight-faced adults, the film might end up being effective propaganda.
Another traumatic scenario that at least takes racial hatred as a given, Ron Shelton’s Dark Blue adapts an early, prototypical James Ellroy story: the racist, monstrously corrupt L.A. cop (Kurt Russell) heading into damnation alley as the city itself explodes into the 1992 riots. Shelton’s grace and deft touch with sports fringe-dwellers is not in evidence; what looms is Ellroy’s arch, screaming-mimi hyper-noirism, which reads a shitload better than it plays. (Los Angeles is “a city built on bullets”; when an innocent man is gunned down, a nearby toddler drops her bottle; etc.) Russell and same-Shaun Cassidy-hairdo partner Scott Speedman act as tortured pawns for venal police chief Brendan Gleeson (with a brogue—are cops still being imported from Tipperary?), executing suspects on command and watching their lives and vestiges of moral sense collapse as a result. The movie has a distinctly dated vibe, sharing more than just Ellroy with the 1988 James Woods muck-wallow Cop. But however misjudged and evidently cobbled together in the editing room, Dark Blue does have the nerve to drive right through the riots with Russell’s saber-toothed bigot, implicitly linking the two phenomena and not being shy about the suffering on either side of the combat. I wouldn’t call it enlightened, but at least it’s not waving a flag.