The fact that her previous film (2010’s “In a Better World”) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film ultimately has nothing to do with the fact that Danish director Susanne Bier has earned the benefit of the doubt. Over 20 years and across countless countries, Bier’s films have expressed a keen intelligence, borderless ambition, and an aggressive flair for high drama. While some would argue that Bier’s more self-serious work is plagued by portent and dubiously convenient plotting (her comedies, which are extremely successful in her home country, have engendered little critical attention abroad), it’s hard to deny that her even Bier’s least interesting efforts – like her lugubrious English-language debut, “Things We Lost in the Fire” – are alive with a rare urgency, as though her roving and confrontational camera were possessed by the story at hand. Cherry-picking key tenets of the Dogme 95 moment and inflating them with Technicolor emotion, Bier’s films pulse with purpose, demanding your attention even when they strain your interest.
In other words, when Susanne Bier makes a seemingly frivolous romantic comedy, you have to give it a fair shake. Even when that seemingly frivolous romantic comedy is titled “Love Is All You Need” (a result of the unfortunate but understandable decision to jettison the film’s original title, “The Bald Hairdresser”), and - at first blush – seems like a chilling combination between “Rachel Getting Married” and “Mamma Mia!,” with Bier at the helm you have no choice but to trust in the clarity of her vision and take the plunge.
Good news – the water’s fine. A warm and winsome movie that stretches the definition of a “romantic comedy” (it would be more accurate to call it a love story with laughter), “Love Is All You Need” is a refreshingly uncynical and surprisingly practical portrait of two people learning how to take life at face value and embrace the joy available to them.
As the film begins, we’re introduced to Ida (the brilliant Trine Dyrholm), a sweet but strong middle-aged woman who arrives home from her final chemotherapy treatment only to find her husband unrepentantly screwing a young blonde. To make matters worse, Ida is running late for her flight from Denmark to Italian coast, where she’ll be a guest at her daughter’s wedding. Meanwhile, across town, a grumpy and emotionally closed off business tycoon named Philip (Pierce Brosnan, who responds to the Danish dialogue in his usual Irish brogue) rejects the advances of his sexy young secretary because, well, he has nearly zero interest in other human beings. What love he does have is reserved for his son, who’s about to get married on the Italian coast. And you’ll never guess into whom Philip (literally) crashes in the airport parking lot before his flight...
Ironically, it’s during the familiar meet-cute that Bier first suggests her movie is interested in exploring deeper than what’s expected of such a fluffy premise. It’s common (or perhaps mandatory) for a rom-com couple to spar with one another before their antagonism gives way to the soul-sealing love that obviously lurks below, but Ida and Philip barely make it through five minutes of shared screen-time before they’ve taken their mutual disdain as far as it can go. They haven’t even arrived at the villa where their kids are getting married before they’ve seen right through one another, making more progress in one car ride than Katherine Heigl might in the span of 15 dresses.
By the time Ida and Philip meet up with their kids and say hi to the extended cast of characters who provide the film with its unusually rich texture (Bier regular Paprika Steen has a ton of fun as a sexed up cousin with an agenda, while distinctly nozzled “Gomorrah” star Ciro Petrone delivers an unexpectedly sweet performance as a local handyman), “Love is All You Need” has already busted the ceiling that’s usually imposed on films like this.
More to the point, there really aren’t all that many “films like this.” Sure, there’s a veritable sub-genre of movies about women “getting their groove back,” but the process by which Ida is seen reclaiming her life in the wake of her first brush with cancer is so startlingly organic and humane that it unfolds as more of a moving acceptance than a forced reawakening. This isn’t some “you go, girl!” story of a woman who emerges from crisis by realizing that she’s still got it, but rather the story of a woman who’s increasingly determined to love what she’s got left. Trine Dyrholm’s locates Ida as an understandably vulnerable person who nevertheless has no desire to be “saved.” Dyrholm’s wide eyes and delicate English threaten to confuse her for one of Lars von Trier’s holy women, but the actress is in such command of Ida’s grounded outlook that the character never feels on trial, but simply alive.
One especially telling scene finds Ida emerging fully nude from the ocean surf, her blonde wig absent from her head and the scar from her mastectomy on full display. As Bier herself observed during my conversation with her, it’s a scene that would have felt agonizingly obvious in a more heavy-handed film, but here – amidst the ridiculously sublime Italian scenery and the jovial merriment that suffuses the film like it’s the most sobering comedy Richard Curtis never made – it’s a moving reminder that Ida and the rest of these characters are responding to the wild scenarios of this madcap weekend, and not merely at their mercy. And while the lens through which we observe this scene suggests that, on a semantic level, this film might ultimately belong to Philip, it’s Ida that provides its beating heart and its gracious hope (Brosnan’s turn is excellent as well. I hesitate to suggest that the actor, who lost a spouse to cancer in real life, was especially empowered to sell the character’s catharsis because of his personal experience, but his performance proves that Brosnan still has his heart in the game, regardless of what he drew upon to deliver it).
“Love is All You Need” hardly reinvents the wheel, but that clearly wasn’t Bier’s intention. Irresistibly entertaining and beautiful to look at it, the film is pleasant at worst, and – at best - wisely defies its slapped-on American title, a warm reminder that love isn’t a solution so much as it’s a brilliant way of embracing life’s problems.
SCORE: 7.7 / 10