The Bitter with the Sweet
by Max Nelson
Love Is All You Need
Dir. Susanne Bier, Denmark, Sony Pictures Classics
Love is what everybody needs in Susanne Bierâ€™s profoundly (if accidentally) mean-spirited new film. And love is what they getâ€”that is, if they happen to be either a good-hearted hairdresser undergoing cancer treatments or a widowed businessman with short tempers and untapped wells of sympathy. The rest of Bierâ€™s characters, rendered with varying combinations of smug disdain and outright contempt, arenâ€™t as lucky: a shrill, emotionally abusive middle-aged mother, her beauty long faded; a ditzy blonde, her beauty soon to fade, a loutish husband cheating his way through a midlife crisis; a young man whose repressed homosexuality is treated with a staggering lack of empathy, when itâ€™s not being written off as a sign of weakness or duplicity.
There are similar misanthropic gestures to be found in Thomas Vinterbergâ€™s The Celebration, or in some mid-career films by Lars von Trierâ€”touchstones of the Dogme movement to which Bier briefly belonged. But for all their shortcomings, those were films of righteous anger, driven by a palpable sense of moral outrage at human corruption, institutional injustice, and the cruel designs of fate. Bierâ€™s misanthropy is more insidious, veiled by good intentions (or at least the appearance of good intentions), picturesque scenery, and rom-com trappings. Love Is All You Need often plays like the misguided wedding around which its plot revolves: an edifice constructed out of a sincere belief in true love and yet founded on a total misalignmentâ€”in this case between a director and her characters rather than between a bride and groom.
The romantic comedy has often traded in this strange combination of naĂŻvetĂ© and cruelty: to ensure that your lovers get to live happily ever after, you have to be willing to toss under the bus anyoneâ€”family, friends, admirers, and above all existing significant othersâ€”who gets in their way. For example, the poor sap who had to compete with Gene Kelly for the leading ladyâ€™s affections in films like For Me and My Gal and An American in Paris tended to be a more decent, sympathetic guy than Kelly himself; when he inevitably lost, we would feel a twinge of guilt at the filmsâ€™ triumphant, romantic finales, which we knew were made possible only by his heartbreak. Love Is All You Need more often reverts to the opposite strategy: vilifying the central coupleâ€™s competing love interests until their loss is sure not to spoil the hero and heroineâ€™s gain. Ida (Trine Dyrholm) returns from her last chemo session to find her husband in flagrante with Jill from accounting; at their daughterâ€™s Italian wedding, he shows up with new girlfriend in tow. Even after his tearful repentance, itâ€™s hard to feel too sorry when she finally dumps him for suave widower Philip (Pierce Brosnan)â€”if anything, itâ€™s a chance for her to balance out the scales. In the same way, when Philip hears his lonely, bitter sister-in-law confess her love for him, his unnecessarily prolonged put-down is made to seem like a sort of eye-for-an-eye justice, a punishment for the abuses weâ€™ve just seen her rain down on her teenage daughter. In Bierâ€™s romantic coliseum, a perfect match is nothing but the product of a long sum of injustices, insults, and mistreatments, carefully chosen to cancel each other out. That all this comes surrounded by candy-colored travel-brochure views of Italy, syrupy strings on the soundtrack, charming smiles, and declarations of love suggests that Love Is All You Need is either a profoundly ironic provocation or a film bafflingly unaware of its own bitterness.
At their best, the unshowy, refined performances manage to suggest unseen levels of meaning in even the bluntest of lines. And there are moments of sensitivity: the bride-to-be waking up beside her fiancĂ© and running her hand along his shoulder with equal parts apprehension, affection and desire, or the way Brosnanâ€™s impassive face hints at the reserves of kindness heâ€™s stubbornly keeping just out of view. Yet these small, sensitive gestures can be misleading; they threaten at times to blind us to the filmâ€™s large-scale insensitivities. That unresponsive fiancĂ©, we learn, doesnâ€™t reciprocate his soon-to-be-wifeâ€™s advances because heâ€™s struggling with his sexual identityâ€”a struggle that culminates in a subterranean run-in with a pale, gaunt male seducer mid-rehearsal-dinner. This development spells the end of the engagement, and then, having served its purpose, both problem and character are promptly abandoned.
By the end of Love Is All You Need, Bier has taken on a herculean range of delicate subject matter, enough to tax any filmmakerâ€™s capacity for sensitivity or tact: adultery; eating disorders; the physical and emotional toll of cancer treatments; barely of-age adults going off to war; family bereavement. Bier can be forgiven for not having dealt responsibly with so many high-stakes issues, but thereâ€™s something deeply unpardonable in the way she consistently, aggressively refuses to engage with them as anything other than plot devices or unearned effects: she films a distraught Ida, left bald from months of chemo, tearing off a blonde wig like a horror director might film a monster popping out of a cabinet. If we pity Ida, itâ€™s purely incidental; what matters to Bier, or seems to matter, is the pleasure of the shock.
The filmâ€™s final scenes commit a similar offense: an unopened letter from the oncologist becomes a source of cheap suspense and cheaper satisfaction. Bier, for her part, seems to believe wholeheartedly in the happy ending that follows, and thereâ€™s something perversely admirable about the way she sends us offâ€”at once with a raised middle finger and a smile so cheery youâ€™re almost convinced that the eye doesnâ€™t see what the hand is doing. Taken most charitably, Love Is All You Need is a slight but harmless romantic comedy mistakenly warped somewhere between conception and execution into a cruel case of audience shaming; taken less charitably, itâ€™s a candy-coated poison pill. Either way, it stings.