Sunday, January 14, 2007

Thomas Vinterberg, "It's All About Love" (2004)

A few weeks ago I posted a review of the Thomas Vinterberg/Lars Von Trier collaboration Dear Wendy. As mentioned in that post, I was very impressed upon first watching Vinterberg's bitter classic of dark humor, Celebration. Dear Wendy was a bit of a mixed bag... but I enjoyed it. In the process of writing the review I discovered mention of It's All About Love, a Vinterberg film that was sandwiched between the two I had already seen. I probably would have been on the lookout for it anyway, but a reader comment further solidified my desire to track it down. Lo and behold, I recently found a copy of it at Hollywood Video for a mere $5.99. Of course I grabbed it.

Starring Joaquin Pheonix and Claire Danes, It's All About Love takes place in an imaginary near future- 2021. Pheonix's character has travelled to New York City in order to deliver divorce papers to his estranged wife (Danes). His intention is to meet quickly with her, get her to sign the papers, and continue on to his destination. Danes is a world-renowned figure-skater with a coterie of managers and assistants fashioned into some sort of odd family grouping. Pheonix is persuaded to extend his stay and spend time with his ex-wife. They are on good terms, and it is obvious that they still care for each other. But complications soon become apparent. Danes wants to retire, and those who depend on her for their income are not anxious to see this happen. Pheonix gets drawn up into a convoluted plot to see Danes through these difficulties.

The emotional conflicts between Pheonix, Danes and her entourage form the main thread of the plot. Yet meanwhile we learn that the world is going through extreme environmental transition. There is a quickly approaching ice age, and it is causing problems on a global scale. In NYC people are falling over and expiring in the street. Themes of urban anomie are reflected by passersby, who unfeelingly step over their expired fellow citizens without comment. At one point we catch a glimpse of a body lying on the surface of a public trash receptacle. Meanwhile in Uganda, the country's citizens are beginning to defy gravity and float up into the sky. This condition is only cursorily referred to, and seems to have little bearing on the story of our heroes.

The film continues on its merry way, periodically reminding us that this story of imperiled love takes place among random and strange occurrences. It's a bit of a thriller and a bit of a romance, with the merest trappings of science fiction. The story could have well been told in the present, without the wierd window-dressing. These disparate elements did however add a compelling dimension to the proceedings. I'm not an expert at decoding symbolic allegory, and so I'm not going to try to explain the Ugandan phenomena. But the climate change aspect has a direct parallel with the events that help unfold the main storyline.

No doubt the average mainstream filmgoer is going to be extremely dissatisfied with this film. However beautifully shot the movie is (in places), it is quite easy to condemn it as pretentious and sentimental drivel. Vinterberg's choices often seem deliberately intended to obscure an empty core. Besides the arbitrary devices of fantasy that the director employed, he made one or two other serious missteps of distraction. Despite the American cast, the actors all employ a set of awkwardly subtle foreign accents. This has the effect of making the dialogue sound obtuse and contrived. In addition, Sean Penn appears in an awkward series of disconnected scenes with no apparent purpose other than to add starpower to the cast.

With the consideration of Dear Wendy and It's All About Love, I have to admit viewing Vinterberg's directorial skills with a hint of suspicion. What made Celebration the classic it is destined to become was it's brutally raw honesty. The artifice of these two follow-up films, while compelling in some mildly curious way (especially in Dear Wendy), suggests that Vinterberg's intitial promise may be fated to remain unfulfilled. However there is enough presented in his entire body of work to justify a continued interest in his projects, albeit an interest tempered with a bit of skepticism.

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