William at This Savage Art is hosting a most interesting Blog-A-Thon this weekend focusing on ambitious cinematic failures. I am a bit conflicted about the film I have chosen simply because I don't consider it a failure, but considering it is one of the worst reviewed and ridiculed films of the decade it seemed like a pretty good choice. What follows is my tribute to a film that I consider to be among a small handful of truly great films this decade, and a film that I am close to being alone in my love for.
After his much acclaimed film FESTEN (THE CELEBRATION) in 1999, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg spent nearly three years writing the screenplay for what would what would become his 2003 feature, IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE. For the film, Vintenberg would abandon all of the Dogme rules FESTEN had embraced and make IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE as cinematic as possible.
Featuring a cast of American stars with music by frequent Kieslowski collaborator Zbigniew Preisner and cinematography by award winning Anthony Dod Mantle, IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE was a much anticipated film upon its arrival at The Sundance film festival in January 2003. Halfway through the screening though people reportedly began leaving the theater and as the credits came up, the attending Vinterberg and his star Claire Danes were loudly booed by the entire remaining audience. Danes was said to have broke down in tears and IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE became the folly of the festival, a film that everyone seemed to relish hating.
Vinterberg continued to take his film around to different festivals with more of the same happening, although it was awarded three awards for it's striking look at the Robert Festival. The reviews started flooding in and they were universally negative and at times overwhelmingly cruel. A quick look at the film's Rotten Tomatoes score will show a sore of 14 with 24 of 28 reviews being very negative. At Metacritic it has a score of 32 and a brief glancing over the reviews finds words like, 'Awful', 'Incomprehensible', 'Silly' and 'Garbage' popping up. Filmgoers reaction weren't any better and the film quickly vanished from theaters and didn't appear on American dvd until two years after that initial Sundance disaster.
So what is it about this film that affects me so much? Why do I hold it among the best film's of the decade? I'm not sure if I can really answer those questions but I will just give a few thoughts on it and hopefully someone reading might search it out on their own, as I think the worst thing that has happened to this film is that it just hasn't been seen by many.
It was my mother who actually introduced me to the film. A couple of years ago she called me and asked if I had heard of a film called IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE starring Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes and Sean Penn. I admitted I hadn't and she said that she was going to watch it that evening on, ironically, Sundance. She called the next day and asked me to watch the film and tell me what I thought. I didn't get Sundance at the time and she had to supply me of a copy of it, in the couple of weeks period before she could get it to me she watched the film a few times through, something my mom doesn't typically do.
My initial reaction to the film was to be struck by its look and how odd it was. I didn't necessarily love or hate it, I was just intrigued by it. I couldn't stop thinking about it though and that night I sat awake in my bed with certain images from it running through my head. I ended up watching it probably three times within that first week and finally decided it was some sort of visionary masterpiece and the most moving science fiction film I had seen since BLADE RUNNER.
IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE is set in a future where everything, including the human heart, is freezing over. People routinely are falling dead in the street due to loneliness and isolation. It is snowing in mid summer, and once or twice a year everything freezes. There is also a most strange event occurring in Uganda that is causing members of the population to literally float away, at one point in the film a Uganda native speaks directly into the camera and says, "I don't want to fly, we are human beings."
The plot centers on a travelling businessman named John who has been estranged from his famous figure skating wife, Elena. He has been called back home to sign divorce papers as she is preparing her final performance. In the meantime, John's brother Marciello has has taken a pill to get over his fear of flying and he is in a plane throughout the film. Marciello, at times, seems to be talking to John on the plane's phone but mostly he is just recording his thoughts on a recorder. It soon becomes apparent that the plane will not be able to land as the section of world it is flying over has frozen completely. All it can do is fly until it runs out of gas and crashes, something everyone on board seems perfectly content with.
The film becomes more and more complex with several cloned Elena's attempting to take her place and a final snow covered escape section that is among the most moving things I have ever seen in a film.
Vinterberg's work is centered on two characters, played with beautiful fragility by Phoenix and Danes, who once loved each other very much but at some point collapsed into a world of lies, coldness and deception. They both seemed to have chosen the world of their careers and money over each other and their once strong love disintegrated because of it. Vinterberg lets this relationship, and the possible renewal of it stand in as a symbol for the soon to end world around them. We like them, want them to escape but we realize, that at least in Vinterberg's future world, it is much too late.
The film is a joy to look at and listen to. Even the most hateful and despising critics of it seem to acknowledge the work of Mantle's photography and Preisner's score. I would argue that Mantle's work in the final scenes of this film are the best stuff he has ever done and Preisner's heartbreaking score the equal to his work with Kieslowski.
IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE is filled with so many striking sequences that a mere plot synopsis won't due, it really does just need to be seen. Particularly noteworthy is a strange, and totally compelling, act of sudden violence that occurs while the Elena's are skating; while the eerie final shots of the tied down floating Uganda people is like nothing else even thought of in modern cinema.
Thomas Vintergberg's film is a bold, ambitious and completely honorable film that focuses on the dangers of isolating ourselves too much from each other. The talented writer and director is really wearing his heart on his sleeve with this work and I suspect he knew that he was going to be ridiculed for it. As I sit here alone in my own little world writing this for other people to read probably alone in their own, I am struck by how relevant Vinterberg's message of not forgetting how important human contact is. I am going to shut off the computer after I write this and go out with a friend and enjoy the day amidst other people. Never in history has the possibility of total self contained isolation been so possible, Thomas Vinterberg's bold film suggest what can happen if we give into it completely.
There is a moment towards the very end of this film where Sean Penn's character Marciello, who has clearly been speaking from Vinterberg's point of view himself, says simply that, after finishing a report on the state of the world, he has decided that, "It's all about love and that's the way it should be." Vinterberg isn't just giving his film a title here. He is saying something so obviously true and important, and apparently something that modern day film audiences don't want to accept. Watching these final few moments of the film gives me the same feeling that Rutger Hauer's famous last speech in BLADE RUNNER gave me. It is one of the most effective and moving last few lines of dialogue that I have ever heard...and I will be eternally baffled how anyone could have booed a film so well meaning and extraordinarily rendered.
IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE is available on Region one dvd in a bare bones presentation featuring artwork that attempts to make it look like an action film. It remains one of the most ambitious and timely films of the decade to me and one of the most visually astonishing films I have ever seen. See it for yourself and make up your own mind about its merits, chances are you will either hate it or be moved completely by it.
I suspect the dvd will soon slip out of print and this film will probably disappear much like the 'tears in rain' that Hauer spoke of at the end of BLADE RUNNER. I honestly believe though that this strange and wondrous film will eventually find its audience. It might be in ten years or maybe twenty and it might be a small audience but I suspect we will be extremely loyal to it. Lost or found, seen or unseen...Thomas Vinterberg's film will remain perhaps frozen in time as a work of art that lets us know that it is, indeed, all about love. I can't imagine a more truthful and important statement for our increasingly cold and shut off world...it is not an idea or film that Vinterberg should ever apologize for.