Watching Thomas Vinterberg's Dogme 95 breakout hit The Celebration, I experienced a giddy rush of discovery. I was excited about the film, but I was equally excited about decades of Vinterberg masterpieces to come. If he could accomplish so much while adhering to the rigorous set of aesthetic strictures he helped create as one of the architects of the Dogme movement, I could only imagine what he'd be capable of with no restrictions whatsoever.
Then something curious happened. That something was nothing. Vinterberg was inundated with scripts and offers from money people eager to get into the Thomas Vinterberg business, but nothing struck his fancy. Of course, the real trick is to nab geniuses before they make their masterpiece, not after. Get in bed with Michael Cimino after Deer Hunter and you wake up the next morning with Heaven's Gate, a pounding headache, an empty wallet, and an enduring sense of shame.
Vinterberg began to wilt under the pressure. He spent years working on an utterly bizarre screenplay that seemed torn painfully from the innermost recesses of his soul. It was a futuristic sci-fi love story that doubled as a moody, arty meditation on love, loss, and a world that seemed to be spinning madly out of control.
Vinterberg's follow-up to The Celebration, It's All About Love takes place in a near-future troubled by "Cosmic Disturbances" that are alternately whimsically grim and grimly whimsical. The world is rapidly freezing. It snows in July. Tap water turns to ice in seconds during cryptic freeze storms. Ugandans begin magically levitating. People start dying en masse from lack of love, littering the streets with corpses whose hearts simply ceased beating, as much from a dearth of affection as lack of oxygen. Heroin-addled superstar professional figure skater Claire Danes is being cloned excessively and saddled with a shaky Polish accent that makes her sound vaguely vampirish (I kept waiting for her to say "I vant to suck your blahd–in de future!") Arnold Schwarzenegger is elected Governor of California (oh wait, that actually happened).
It must have looked like an unholy mess on the page, but producers no doubt figured that the guy who made The Celebration could transform his script's fuzzy mélange of intriguing but half-baked ideas, lifeless characters, and cryptic social commentary into a satisfying, halfway-cohesive whole. They were wrong.
Vinterberg's Celebration cachet helped attract a formidable cast. Joaquin Phoenix and his soulful eyes of bottomless pain signed on as the lead character, a brooding, lovesick intellectual with a PhD in Polish literature that only sounds like the set-up to a hackneyed joke. Danes plays his estranged wife, a gloomy mega-celebrity with a bad heart (oh, the overwrought metaphors!), insomnia, and a history of drug abuse. Oh and Sean Penn plays Phoenix's brother, a sensitive soul given to loopy, extended pseudo-poetic, pseudo-philosophical monologues about the nature of the world and the importance of human connection. Penn used to be afraid of flying. Then he took medication that worked so well that now he can't do anything but fly. In another movie, that might qualify as a goofy throwaway joke, but here Penn literally spends every scene expounding about the world from planes he mysteriously can't leave.
After an extended break, Phoenix returns to New York to sign divorce papers for Danes, only to be swept up in a web of intrigue and deception. The moody, gloomy enigma of the film's early scenes eventually coalesces into a plot Michael Crichton might have come up with after getting dumped and spending far too much time brooding in the coffee shops of Paris. Danes' family, it seems, has commissioned at least three clones of Danes so that they can replace her once their self-destructive cash cow decides to leave the lucrative world of figure skating behind. But first, they must destroy Danes before she can screw up their plans. Phoenix helps Danes escape east, to a desolate, barren arctic hellhole where popular leisure time activities include freezing and/or dying.
In retrospect, Vinterberg got it backwards. When working with a tiny budget and Dogme guidelines, he'd crafted a movie as entertaining and funny any Hollywood crowd-pleaser. Then while working with big American stars, a healthy budget (10 million dollars), and no restrictions, he made a film as weird and uncommercial as any gritty Dogme provocation.
As befits a film that closes with a monologue about how, when it comes right down to it, it really is all about love, from a man doomed to live out the rest of his life on an airplane, Love has a jet-lagged rootlessness and pervasive sense of dislocation common to international co-productions, those cinematic towers of Babel where nationalities and sensibilities all too often congeal into a swampy, stilted mess.
Vinterberg appealed to no less than Ingmar Bergman to help him finish the film, but the master refused, I suspect because he found it far too lugubrious even for his legendarily grim sensibility. "Bromeister, your flick is too depressing even for me," Bergman probably said in between chess matches with the Grim Reaper. (Incidentally Bergman was, at the time of Love's filming, just over 1,000 years old and stayed above ground solely by beating Death at chess. Let's just say that either Bergman is a very good chess player or The Grim Reaper is a very bad one. All art truly is autobiographical.)
Though in many ways a stilted, awkward, leadenly paced mess, Love nevertheless captures that fragile post-9/11 mindset of naked vulnerability and yawning doubt, before our souls became re-calloused and we as a culture developed an insatiable curiosity about the private life of Paris Hilton and the Sweet 16 parties of the super-rich and morally reprehensible. It poignantly evokes that curious historical epoch when it seemed somehow like the world would just stop, that the universe would punish us for the mess we'd made of the world.
Though it's quite possible Vinterberg wrote the film before 9/11, it nevertheless evokes how 9/11 single-handedly rewired our sense of the possible and the impossible, and upended our sense of reality. After all, in a world where planes fly into buildings and a motley aggregation of zealots armed with box-cutters can strike widespread, almost unprecedented terror in the heart of the richest, most powerful country in the world, why shouldn't Ugandans begin floating mysteriously up into the ether?
Love is filled with images at once ridiculous, beautiful, and wildly audacious, like a skating ballet with four–count 'em four–Claire Danes (or rather one Claire Danes and any number of skating doubles) gliding in unison that devolves into an ice-rink massacre as one Danes double after another loses their so-called lives.
Like Wong Kar-Wai's strangely simpatico 2046, Love finds a maverick largely abandoning logic and coherence in a Quixotic quest for beauty and truth. It's through the looking glass time as Vinterberg follows his wandering muse down a rabbit hole without caring much whether audiences will follow his lead.
With its doppelgangers, surrealism, abstract characters, and gorgeous, painterly long shots Love feels throughout like a waking dream, especially in a superior second half that delivers the sci-fi goods, sorta, while plunging further and further into its own insanity.
Though they each possess a direct line to the subconscious, it should be noted that dreams are not movies and movies are not dreams, no matter how much they bleed into each other. It is rare, for example, to have a dream with well-defined characters or a satisfying story arc, though it could be argued that those qualities are equally rare in contemporary film, especially studio films. Maybe Robert McKee has those kinds of dreams, but I've never woken up and thought, "You know, the break-dancing Vicar who challenged 2Pac to an Indian wrestling match in butterscotch pudding during last night's dream was quite complex and multi-dimensional and his spiritual evolution was really rather convincing."
So is Love ultimately a Fiasco or a Secret Success? It'd be a real stretch to call it a success, secret or otherwise, but it's exactly the kind of movie I want to highlight and pay homage to in this series, a film so stubbornly odd and singular it seems to belong to a subgenre all its own–a mad, mad mix of sci-fi, allegory, left-field social commentary, and romantic melodrama. If I weren't so damnably attached to this rating system, I'd give it a final score more in line with its free-floating craziness, like say, Three Floating Ugandans, Two and a Half Claire Danes Clones, and Seven Loopy Sean Penn monologues. Can I call it a Semi-Secret Fiascopiece? Heck, if Vinterberg can make a movie this defiantly weird, then I think I'm entitled.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Semi-Secret Fiascopiece