It's All About Love (2003), Dir. Thomas Vinterberg


Starring: Joanquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, Douglas Henshall, Sean Penn.

Reviewed by Djibril

It is hard to decide what to say about this quite remarkable film, directed by the man who was the genius behind the great Dogme classic Festen (1998). The story is about the love between two people—Phoenix's university teacher and his wife, Danes's world champion ice skater—at the end of the world. Phoenix arrives in New York in 2021, hoping to be met at the airport and have divorce papers signed so that he can fly on to Calvary where he has a teaching appointment. He finds a city where it is snowing in July, where people ignore the corpses littering the streets, corpses of those who have died in an epidemic of loneliness or heartbreak. Danes does not show, and he is forced to spend twenty-four hours with her excessively-friendly crew, hoping that she will sign by morning. In this time, he learns that all is not well, and that both his and Danes's lives are in danger.

Phoenix often plays characters who are slightly awkward or even dysfunctional (Max in 8MM, 1999; Commodus in Gladiator, 2000); it is not clear whether in this film his slightly stilted speech is a deliberate move in this direction, an attempt to render a Polish accent, or just poor direction. But the dialogue is not this film's strongest feature, in fact the script seems to be deliberately banal, cliché-ridden and minimalist; the actors often seem a little lost, distant, cold, almost as though still waiting for the director to give them their lines. (This is not to suggest incompetence, of course—the characters in the film are isolated and lonely, confused—this must be a deliberate feature. But it is unsettling.) It is the imagery and the cinematography that are avant-garde and impressive, at times beautiful.

The content of this film, however, is garbled and confusing. This may again be intentional, but it is off-putting for all that, and this reviewer did not find the feel and colour of the film sufficiently gripping to warrant the second or third viewing that might lead to a fuller appreciation of the story. The use of flashbacks to Phoenix and Danes's childhood in Poland are pretty, but not particularly emotive or endearing; sometimes they are downright opaque. Penn's role as Phoenix's brother Marciello, who sits on an aeroplane speaking into a telephone headset with no one on the other end, is largely incomprehensible. It is, on the other hand, quite amusing to have this narrator-figure who knows nothing at all of the events that are unfolding in the drama.

Meanwhile, we learn through news bulletins that the world around them is coming to an end. In addition to the snow in July which is falling simultaneously over the whole earth, and the people who die, unnoticed and uncared for in the streets, there is the annual "two minute freeze", when all the fresh water turns to ice in the space of two minutes. Also, a plague of flying has struck Uganda, as people float into the air and disappear like so many copies of the innocent Remedios la Bella of García Márquez's Cien años de soledad. It is hard to tell whether these sorts of details are meant to provide a religious backdrop to the story, but the 'flying Ugandans' story in particular seems slightly insensitive. Penn's narration informs us that the apocalypse befalling the earth and the loneliness and separation of individuals are inextricably linked, and the insistence that a relationship has to be saved at all costs, even when the lives of the two protagonists have grown so far apart, borders on reactionary moralising.

All criticisms aside, this was a film I enjoyed. It was surreal in places, and amusing, but it demands thought; and upon reflection, I liked less where it was coming from. If you like a film that is entertaining but doesn't require thinking about too much, this film is probably not straightforward enough for you; if you like a film that you can watch a dozen times and be absorbed more each time, then this film promises more than it delivers on that front. If, like this reviewer, you sit somewhere between these two extremes, then you may enjoy this film.

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