Dir: Thomas Vinterberg. Denmark. 2003. 104 min.
Hugely imaginative, conceptually compelling, arresting in its visual panache, It's All About Love can be seen as a millennial fairy tale and Thomas Vinterberg as its latter-day Grimm. He peers into the near-future and sees a wintry dystopia, where the absence of love - between man and his fellow man and man and his planet - brings about the end of the world. How many of Vinterberg's fellow men are willing to buy into this vision will hinge on the appetite for the surreal. Certainly, we haven't seen something like this in some time.
Although the film has sold in every major territory save the US, distributors can't rely on the critical response that Vinterberg had with The Celebration. Similar high-concept art house films like Wim Wenders' Until The End Of The World have failed to justify their extravagant budgets and cross-over from the art house arena. Marketers will have to choose between accentuating its ethereal love-story or its thriller elements. Either way, they're in for a challenge.
Like a starving man let loose in a high-priced restaurant, Vinterberg has reacted against the Dogme ethos and fashioned a world of opulent interiors and vast exteriors. Production designer Ben Van Os created luxurious settings for the likes of Peter Greenaway and Sally Potter. His materials are snow and ice, silk and steel.
In the year 2021 technology has taken a few steps forward while human kind has taken a few steps back. The planes are bigger but you can smoke on them. Fear of flying can be controlled with a serum but figure-skating is the most popular sport ever, bigger than boxing and football combined.
And the world, judging by the environment, is in bad shape: there's snow in July in New York, there are worldwide freeze-outs that last two minutes, and gravity seems to have abandoned the people of Uganda. They've taken to tethering themselves to the earth, like human balloons. But they may have it backwards; It's as though some higher force wants to lift them to safety. Meanwhile, in New York City, gravity seems to be increasing. People are dropping dead in the street to the indifference of all passers-by, their bodies left where they have fallen, to be stepped over like trash.
John (Phoenix) arrives in the city from Poland to meet his wife, Elena (Danes), a world famous figure skater, and have her sign their divorce papers. But Elena isn't there to meet him. Instead he is met by members of her staff who insist he postpone the rest of his trip and come to her side. Theirs is clearly an amicable divorce. At Elena's hotel, her vast retinue welcomes him with hugs and smiles, but Elena seems more relieved than pleased to see him. She is the golden goose that sustains this vast apparatus and her desire to retire has lead to an air of claustrophobic disquiet. John is the only person she can trust.
Which is about when the story jumps the rails and where Vinterberg will lose that half of the audience unmoved by his imagination and style. Concept takes precedence over narrative. It's All About Love is meant to be taken literally, so we're treated to languorous love-making scenes as prince and princess escape her keepers - and re-establish an oddly domestic bliss - before she is dragged back to her tower.
Phoenix and Danes make a marvellous pairing, even if their Polish accents waver. Their erotically-charged love scenes seem like love-making. Supporting performances, especially that of Alun Armstrong as Elena's manager, are perfectly suited to the milieu of smiling malevolence.
But the story gets weirder and weirder. To wit, somewhere in a jet plane John's brother (Penn) circles the globe - he has overdosed on fear-of-flying serum and can never land again.
When Vinterberg introduced the film at its Sundance premiere he said that it was not a story 'that would take you by the hand and lead you from A to B'. That's certainly accurate. By the closing frames, the film has run far ahead of its narrative and has disappeared over the horizon.
Prod co: Nimbus International
Int'l sales: Zentropa
Prods: Birgitte Hald
Scr: Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov
DoP: Anthony Dod Mantle
Prod des: Ben Van Os
Mus: Zbigniew Preisner
Main cast: Jooaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, Sean Penn, Douglas Henshall, Alun Armstrong