A film made following the Dogme 95 movement.
These were rules to create filmmaking based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology. It was an attempt to take back power for the director as artist, as opposed to the studio.
Denmark’s leading female film director Susanne Bier is very conscious that cinema is not only art but also entertainment. Her ability to balance art and entertainment is exactly the quality that has made Bier a popular director in both Europe and Hollywood. It is this ability that makes her films at the same time compelling and important, and it is this ability that in 2011 earned her both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her film “In a Better World”.
Susanne Bier was born in 1960 and grew up in a Jewish family in Copenhagen. She studied art at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and architecture at the Architectural Association in London before she graduated from The Danish Film School in 1987. Her graduation film won first prize at the film school festival in Munich, after which Bier gained the opportunity to direct her first feature film “Freud’s Leaving Home”. The film is an exploration of family relationships, which was also the theme of Bier’s following film “Family Matters”.
In 1997 Bier directed the psychological thriller “Credo” before she got her big Danish breakthrough in 1999 with the romantic comedy “The One and Only”, which became one of the biggest film successes of the 90s in Denmark.
Bier achieved a modest international breakthrough in 2002 with the Danish Dogma film “Open Hearts”, which tells the story of two couples whose lives are destroyed by a car accident. Bier received various awards for the film, including the International Critics Award at Toronto Film Festival with the citation that “Open Hearts proves that dogma has come of age and matured into a potent cinematic language that skilfully captures the freeing of real emotions that extreme trauma creates within the lives of the characters in her film.”
“After the Wedding” from 2006 earned Bier an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and her subsequent film “Things We Lost in the Fire”, with Halle Berry, David Duchovny and Benicio del Toro in the leading roles, was another critical and commercial success. But it was “In a Better World” from 2011 that conclusively established Bier as an international star director. The film won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011.
Interview with Variety – after directing the brilliant THE NIGHT MANAGER
(PS Good news! There’s going to be another series)
One of Scandinavia’s top directors, Susanne Bier was on hand at the Goteborg Film Festival to receive the Dragon Honorary Award. The helmer, who earned an Oscar nom for “After the Wedding” and won an Oscar for “In a Better World,” is now making her TV debut with the British-American spy series “The Night Manager,” which is based on John le Carré’s novel and stars Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman. The upbeat Danish-born director has been working in the Nordics and in the U.S. throughout her career, making character-driven, often heart-wrenching movies that explore themes such as grief and family disruption. Bier has made a few English-language pics with A-listers, such as “Things We Lost in the Fire” with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, and most recently “Serena,” starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
How does it feel to receive this lifetime achievement now, at the peak of your career?
I hope it doesn’t mean that that I’m done! I’m having so much fun with what I’m doing. In no way do I feel prepared to retire. I couldn’t think of doing anything else than working and doing all these fun projects.
So you’ve just done this ambitious TV series “The Night Manager” for AMC and BBC One. How was it?
It’s a John Le Carré novel and it’s produced by the Ink Factory and Stephen Garrett. They produced it and John Le Carré has been quite involved with it. It stars Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston and there’s Tom Hollander as well. It’s been fantastic making something which is so extensive in scale. In feature film, you have an hour and a half and here it’s six hours. And it means that all the minor characters are substantial. It’s filmed exactly like a very long film. Also, we didn’t shoot out each episode. On the morning, we would do a scene from episode one then, scene five from episode six – exactly like a movie.
Did you get to work on the script at all, the adaptation?
When I got involved, there was a first draft of episode one. Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston were attached. It was something where I went “I have to do this.” I was reading this big bunch of scripts and I saw John Le Carré written on one of them and was adamant about it. The rest of the episodes came through and then we worked them too. They kept evolving whilst we were shooting. They were finished but we changed things. It was an extremely creative group of people and Hugh came with suggestions, Tom did too and John Le Carré. It was a very involving project.
Were you surprised when you got offered this series project? Was it something that you were immediately comfortable with – the universe of John Le Carré?
I’ve always been envious of people who’ve had the pleasure of touching John Le Carré’s material so I thought at some point maybe it would be my turn. Since there was a script there and no one else was attached, I thought “I’d go for it.”
How does it fit in your body of work?
The thing about John Le Carre is that I’ve always been fascinated by his universe and spies. He is the perfect combination of spy, thriller and yet psychology. I thought it would be a fantastic match.
And there is also a political element in it, right?
There is a strong political element. I want to say that it’s more moral than political. Yes it’s political but it’s almost more moral. It’s a point of view of the world, the way we understand human beings. It’s almost more profound than just being political.
Does it make you want to go back in TV, after that?
I don’t know what I’ll be doing next but it definitely makes me want to do more. That form is very exciting. It’s like having three chessboards – that sort of energy that it gives you to keep all those things in the air. It’s very stimulating.
A lot of great talent are now going into TV right now.
Fantastic actors. I mean, I think, actors and directors are realizing how much great writing there’s in TV at the moment and they want to do that. There’s also an element, an exciting one, that it’s AMC and BBC. It’s good to know that so many people are going to watch it
Now, could you see yourself making a Danish TV series?
I definitely would. I don’t really care where I do things. I want to do the stories that I’m crazy about. I want to know that when I do something, it’s thoroughly exciting and challenging. It has to be challenging.
Are you developing any original stories?
Yes, I am. I’m working on a couple of different things and I’m also going to be writing with Anders Thomas Jensen.
Are these Danish-language movies?
We don’t know. We are in the midst of three different things and we haven’t quite decided which of them. It’s the way we work.
Looking back at the last couple of years, would you consider making “Serena” again? What would you do differently again?
Serendipity is essential for any kind of moviemaking, and I think that movie suffered particularly after filming. It definitely suffered from a lack of serendipity. It suffered from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think that possibly, the different expectations of what the movie was going to be weren’t aligned. At some point, it changed tracks. I will never do that again.
Was it a complicated film to make?
It wasn’t complicated. I asked Jennifer Lawrence before she had done “Hunger Games” and “Silver Linings” — and likewise with Bradley. We were always behind because it took time to get financing … but I hope we will look at it in 10 years and think, “Wow, it’s really interesting.”
It feels like in your career, you’ve had more success with local language movies than English-language movies. How do you explain this?
I don’t think it’s a question of language. I think with the Danish financing, there was always a very clear understanding of what the movie we were making. What happened with “Serena” was that there was not a clear understanding of the kind of movie we were making. And also, I think the mistake I won’t ever make again is not being abundantly convinced that whoever is financing the movie is totally in agreement about what kind of movie this needs to be. It’s one of the pitfalls of movies in general because there has to be a very distinct vision. One that vision becomes soft; it just can’t really be a very strong piece.
What do you think about working with a big studio in Hollywood?
I’d love to do that and I wouldn’t be worried about it. Because with the right project and with taking the time, making sure that the movie I want to make and the movie the studio wants to make is the same movie – then I’d be very happy to do that. I’d be very confident that it would be amazing. I think what wouldn’t work is somehow not getting those ideas totally in sync.
What do you think right now about the effort of many women in the industry to achieve equal pay and greater exposure? Do you feel that there are still boundaries in terms of the genre of movies which a woman director can make today?
I think it’s great. Female directors can do anything. Here’s the thing: Any director will have areas where he or she is obsessed. Anything that works within that frame, he or she can do. There are definitely things that I wouldn’t say yes too.
Like a horror movie or a genre movie?
Not necessarily, I might be interested. I do pass on a number of things because if I don’t feel, deeply in my stomach, that I can make a great piece, I’m going to say no.
So what are you obsessed about?
I’m obsessed about relationships. I’m obsessed about strong characters. I’m obsessed about strong characters in various situations, compromising situations.
Would you say “The Night Manager” picks up on some current political, social crises or at least use that context as a backdrop?
I want to say that “The Night Manager” isn’t set against that background. But it’s set against a very timely background. It deals with the weapons trade. And Hugh Laurie plays someone who deals weapons. He plays a very charming man who is also the worst man in the world because he deals weapons. Tom Hiddleston is partly drawn to that world, partly wanting to take him down.
OPEN HEARTS – REVIEWS: (Contain spoilers)
NEW YORK TIMES:
The differences between a soap opera and a serious drama are starkly illustrated by Susanne Bier’s emotionally devastating ”Open Hearts.” Until the end, when it begins to go soft, the movie takes two strands of soap opera convention — a life-changing accident and an adulterous affair — and spins their suds into gold.
One notion that haunts this Danish film, which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, is how in the blink of an eye a personal heaven can turn into a hell whose agonies reverberate traumatically through other lives. The fateful blink occurs near the beginning with the opening of a car door. Until then, the movie has pretended to be a romantic idyll. In its blissful opening scene, two young lovers, Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Cecilie (Sonja Richter), who live together in Copenhagen, decide to marry.
Disaster falls when Cecilie drops Joachim off to make a connection for a weekend rock-climbing expedition, and he is struck head-on by a speeding vehicle as he gets out of the car. The guilt-stricken driver, Marie (Paprika Steen), accompanied by her sullen teenage daughter, Stine (Stine Bjerregaard), frantically tries to help and telephones her husband, Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), a doctor who works at the hospital where Joachim is taken.
Joachim survives, but his spine is crushed, leaving him permanently paralyzed from the neck down. The bad news is delivered curtly, and as it sinks in, Joachim seems to wither before your eyes.
Because ”Open Hearts” follows the austere rules of the Danish filmmaking collective Dogma 95, it purveys a documentary-style realism that dilutes any lingering soap opera gloss. The rough-hewn visual style matches the bite of Anders Thomas Jensen’s screenplay, which pounces on all the painful issues of affliction, sex and death that you half wish the movie would sidestep.
Joachim does not accept his fate stoically. Recognizing that his athletic days are over and that his sex life is finished, he furiously lashes out at the world. To Cecilie he paints a verbally graphic scenario of the withering of his limbs and sex organs. Her tearful assertions of loyalty are taken as humiliating affronts, and he repeatedly rebuffs her overtures until she retreats.
Mr. Kaas is so intimately attuned to his character’s inner life that you can see the light leave Joachim’s eyes and his face metamorphose from scrubby, teddy-bear handsome into an ugly mask of resentment and despair. As his fury mounts, he becomes both monstrous and painfully sympathetic, and the movie puts you in the uncomfortable shoes of someone who empathizes with his rage (who wouldn’t have the same initial reaction in Joachim’s position?) but is powerless to help. The film deliberately allows his bitter tirades to run on long enough to test your patience and make you want to turn away and flee.
Once Cecilie has withdrawn, Joachim focuses his rage on a nurse who administers physical therapy and whom he taunts with merciless insults. But she can give as good as she gets, and it becomes clear that absorbing the brunt of his fury without cracking is part of her demanding job.
”Open Hearts” has a second drama up its sleeve. When Cecilie, rejected and at a loss over what to do, reaches out to Niels for comfort, the young doctor obliges with the blessing of his guilt-stricken wife. Cecilie is younger and prettier than Marie, and her need for comfort unexpectedly kindles Niels’s desire. Suddenly a stable, monogamous marriage, which has produced three children, begins to unravel.
Stine, who was recently dumped by her boyfriend and who also blames herself for the accident, intuits the affair the moment it ignites. Marie also senses a change, but she loves Niels so much that she is willing to swallow his lies. As Marie’s suspicions deepen, she regards her husband with a fierce, animal vigilance. Ms. Steen lends a desperate pathos to the role of a woman fighting to preserve her family. It hurts to realize that her formidable defenses may be no match against the full flame of Niels’s passion.
In apportioning blame among its four main characters, ”Open Hearts” is scrupulously even-handed. Mr. Mikkelsen’s cheating husband is no sleazy lothario but a man struck by lightning, dazedly riding an emotional seesaw, teetering wildly between terror and desire.
If two hard-bitten dramas seem like one load too many for a serious movie to shoulder, ”Open Hearts” makes the point that an accident like Joachim’s has an inevitable ripple effect, as crosscurrents of guilt, sympathy and the urge to fix what’s broken collide. Ultimately, the film pulls back from the abyss and makes an effort to resolve its conflicts. But once it has come in from the cold, it begins to lose its bite.
Acutely observed and beautifully written, Susanne Bier’s relationships drama is a painful exploration of broken lives.
Made according to the austere filmmaking guidelines laid down by a group of Scandinavian filmmakers in the Dogme manifesto (eg “The film must not contain superficial action”, “Genre movies are not acceptable”), it fails to match the series’ one truly great film – “Festen” – but steers well clear of the contrived, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual bilge of “The King is Alive”. This is a powerful, true work.
Love and existential angst is the order of the day, when a malign act of fate draws the happily married Niels (Mads Mikkelsen) towards a lonely twentysomething girl named Cecile (Sonja Richter – who, somewhat incongruously, bears a striking resemblance to British TV presenter Michaela Strachan).
As their relationship deepens, his wife (Paprika Steen) remains blissfully ignorant, but their teenage daughter begins to suspect. And is Cecile really after love, or purely sympathy?
Originally planned as a romantic comedy, “Open Hearts” evolved into something altogether darker as Anders Thomas Jensen and Bier scripted. There are still a couple of chuckles – a brutally blunt doctor proves unintentionally amusing, and Cecile’s bitter fiancé has a fine line in profanity – but a fluffy laugh-in this is not.
Nor should even the most devoted cineastes consider it a date movie – unless you’re in a relationship you wish to end.
There’s a warmth and humanity to the characters that softens the bleakness, but it’s still gruelling. “You can’t have everything you want. You just can’t. You have to choose”, Niels tells his greedy children, even as he tries to have his cake and eat it.
It’s worth the gloom, however. Mikkelsen is an impressive, hangdog lead, and Steen is a terrific actor – giving a nuanced, emotive performance in a sometimes ragged, always affecting picture. A tribute to humans, in all our faded glory.