Monday 1 September 2008

It's All About Love (2003)

We're in 2021 and John Marczewski is on his way to Calgary, but he stops off in New York to divorce his wife Elena during the two hours he has between flights. He's a teacher but she's a professional ice skater, at the peak of her profession, and is stuck at her hotel with a large entourage making last minute preparations for a premiere she has the next day. Everyone seems very happy to see him and frequent mentions of 'the happy family' don't appear to be artificial. However something is definitely going on. This family has secrets, as the family in Vinterberg's previous film, The Celebration, had, though in a very different way.

Part of it is on a human, personal level. Elena is being manipulated for purposes that are unclear, but those doing the manipulating are not afraid to use force to ensure that they happen. She's not aware of many of the plans, and becomes deeply suspicious of them she becomes aware. There's also a mysterious Mr Morrison, who is also flying into New York, though why and for what purpose we're unaware. John is deliberately kept out of it all, but becomes inextricably drawn deeper and deeper into it.

However part of it is on a more epic scale. Strange things are happening that seem nothing short of biblical in their scope. The news is full of phenomena in Uganda where the temperature is dropping daily and gravity is failing. In New York, people seem to be falling over dead without warning, frequent enough that it's not comment worthy. When John arrives at the airport, there's a corpse at the bottom of the escalator, and everyone merely steps over it. It's something to do with the heart, people say. Soon it starts snowing in July.

This is the future though it doesn't look particularly futuristic, but this isn't meant to be Blade Runner. I think that the futuristic setting was only to allow the global changes to appear believable, and as expressed by one of the characters, the chaos in the world is a parallel to the chaos in the hearts of the characters. The story is the key here and I was very much impressed because I couldn't see where it was going. That's rare, not only in modern films but in films generally. Surprises tend to come in the details or through twist endings, so that the overall framework is reasonably obvious even if the details aren't. This whole film is a surprise.

It took me a while to get used to Joaquin Phoenix as John. He comes off very artificial, though I think he was merely attempting to sound like someone who knows English only as a second language, the Marcewskis being Polish. I enjoyed Walk the Line, while not being knocked out by it the way many people were, but I was just as impressed by his performance, which was powerful in a very different way to this one. He's definitely a versatile talent. Claire Danes is very good indeed as Elena. Sean Penn plays an intruiging but ultimately pointless character who only interacts with the rest of the cast via phone calls from planes. He's more like a narrator.

Most impressive to my eyes was Douglas Henshall, a Scots actor with a decent list of credits to his name. I've only seen him in odd things here and there, never as a lead, and he's never stuck in my brain. I think I'm going to remember here him though, as Elena's brother. He has a shifting but pivotal role in proceedings and there's a lot of subtlety in his performance. At the end of the day, this one belongs to the story though, written by director Thomas Vinterberg with Mogens Rukov. It invites a lot of thought and is beautifully put together, often like a painting. It'll be interesting to watch it again a few years down the road.

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