After a five-year break, Danish helmer Thomas Vinterberg follows up his celebrated “The Celebration” with “It’s All About Love,” a film that is considerably different in nearly every respect. This cool, contemplative, artfully composed meditation on the possible state of the world some 20 years hence deals with grand, philosophical issues in ways that are variously thoughtful, fanciful and superficial. Vinterberg has put one foot in the romantic thriller genre here, no doubt in the hope that time-tested Hitchcockian narrative tropes will supply enough dramatic oomph to make this ambitious undertaking a commercial picture. But the director doesn’t display the spirit of a natural entertainer; while intellectual notions abound, he never grabs the audience by the hand to pull them into the tale emotionally, which spells muted potential with the general public internationally. At the same time, the most ardent admirers of the raw, truth-telling qualities of Dogma will no doubt be disappointed by the traditional brand of beautiful craftsmanship on display here.
All the way through “It’s All About Love,” one can strongly sense Vinterberg and his co-writer Mogens Rukov struggling for ways to give dramatic form to the many ideas they’re so anxious to express in the pic. What single story could they possibly invent that would organically and excitingly convey their urgent thoughts on cloning, multinational corporate control over artists, global winter, the transient nature of modern life, the death of love and the possible loss of gravity from a hole in the sky over Africa that causes Ugandans to float upward? Above all, the filmmakers are rather touchingly devoted to the theme of the difficulty of maintaining individuality in the technological world, a legitimate and sympathetic subject that gives the picture its one point of emotional entry.
Plot hinges on whether a couple will, on the brink of divorce, find a way to reconnect and remain together. In the summer of 2021, John (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives in New York to get his Polish-born wife Elena (Claire Danes) to sign final divorce papers. Separated a year-and-a-half earlier, the two have seen very little of one another in the interim, mainly because of Elena’s hectic international schedule as the world’s top figure-skating superstar.
Elena is surrounded by a huge staff of managers, marketing execs and flunkies, and while John is greeted cordially by her inner circle and welcomed into the burnished Old World-style cocoon they occupy, Elena is distracted and something seems amiss. But then perhaps that’s not surprising, since the world itself is out of synch in some mysterious ways: In New York, dead bodies on the street attract no particular notice, as people, particularly children, have begun dying from an unknown ailment — “something in the heart,” it is said. And then there’s is that strange Ugandan phenomenon.
After a lavish skating show, Elena is confronted by someone who appears to be her double; confessing to John that “I’m in a lot of trouble,” she asks him to stick around. Eluding Elena’s web of handlers, the couple slips off to an anonymous little hotel in Brooklyn and renew their mutual ardor, later waking at night to witness the haunting sight of a July snowfall, something that cutaways later reveal to be happening in Venice and Paris as well.
At the halfway point, Elena is abducted by her bosses, and the a major revelation is made by the man in charge, David (Alun Armstrong): Elena has three clones. “It’s simple business,” David says matter-of-factly, explaining that the three lookalikes, who are still being trained to skate at Elena’s level, merely represent an insurance policy in case something happens to their big investment or she decides to retire. No offense intended. The three imitations, who can be identified by staples in their arms, are all pretty crazy, suggesting that the cloning process hasn’t quite been perfected two decades from now.
The threat of the clones naturally binds Elena and John closer together as they face the smiling malevolence of her owners, and it’s at this point that the Hitchcockian template of the endangered couple on the run kicks in. Punctuating the second half are surprise assassinations, an escape by railroad and an ultimate bittersweet fate in a remote frozen wasteland that recalls the flights from malign societies in sci-fi works ranging from “Fahrenheit 451” to “Blade Runner.”
Giving a global perspective to all this are not only the occasional glimpses of odd environmental spasms in far-flung locations, but also the ruminations of John’s older brother Marciello (an animated Sean Penn), who is forever circling the Earth on planes and is finally stuck in the air, unable to land, because “it’s freezing all over the world.”
Clearly, Vinterberg is concerned about the loss of elemental humanity, the chilling of the heart and the soul and the difficulty people have in connecting despite technological inventions that greatly expedite contact and speed travel. These are sympathetic notions, and there are moments, especially toward the end, when they are expressed in poignant ways, no matter how muddled the narrative has become by this point. Both the artistic intent and package that contains them are honorable and even arresting at times, but they haven’t been wedded together comfortably, and there are significant deficiencies on the basic level of storytelling.
John and Elena are scarcely well-developed characters, and the awkward position in which they find themselves — separated by their recent disaffection as well as by her staff –makes it difficult to become involved with them until rather late in the game, when both Phoenix and Danes are able to invest the characters with some genuine, if still rather inchoate, emotion.
Pic is much stronger on the technical side, thanks to Ben Van Os’ lovely production design, which stresses a look of retro luxury dominated by dark wood and heavy ornamentation rather than anything futuristic; Ellen Lens’ often gorgeous costumes; and Anthony Dod Mantle’s sumptuous widescreen lensing, which reps the antithesis of his rough-and-ready work on numerous Dogma films.