VENICE – It’s easy to imagine a version of Love Is All You Need (Den skaldede frisor) made almost scene for scene and line for line by some ham-handed criminal like lifestyle purveyor Nancy Meyers. The results would have been insufferable and probably made a fortune.
But while virtually everything that happens in this grown-up rom-com can be seen coming a mile off, Danish director Susanne Bier’s assured touch and warm regard for her characters make the film both pleasurable and satisfying. This will land on the bougie end of the arthouse spectrum and not the edgy one, to be sure, but it undeniably works.
Taking a lighter turn after their 2011 Foreign Language Oscar winner In a Better World, Bier and frequent screenwriting collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen have in the broadest sense made a patchwork of Under the Tuscan Sun and Mamma Mia! The latter connection is amplified by the presence of Pierce Brosnan in a leading role. The actor looks dapper, distinguished and more relaxed than he has in a long time, despite playing an uptight workaholic businessman carrying around years of hurt and anger.
Set in Copenhagen and Southern Italy, and mixing Danish, English and a sprinkling of Italian language, the film opens with attractive middle-aged hairdresser Ida (Trine Dyrholm) getting an update on her breast cancer status after finishing chemo. With a good wig to match her attitude, she prepares to fly to Sorrento for the wedding of daughter Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind) to Patrick (Sebastian Jessen), following a whirlwind three-month courtship. But Ida hits a speed bump when she comes home to find her self-centered husband Leif (Kim Bodnia) humping Tilde (Christiane Schaumberg-Mueller), the hot young accountant from his office that he apparently intends to marry.
Taking all this on board with surprising composure, Ida keeps it together until she rear-ends Philip (Brosnan) in the airport car park. She learns that the furious stranger is Patrick’s widowed father, getting their interaction off to a stiff start. Candid and direct, she makes no secret of her distaste for his brusque manner and terse phone exchanges with employees at his produce import business.
From the earliest glimpses, Bier and cinematographer Morten Soborg swoon over the postcardy splendors of the Amalfi Coast, with its breathtaking views and picturesque citrus groves. They also heat up the colors to overstated but eye-catching extremes. Bier slathers occasionally on-the-nose music choices (“That’s Amore” is heard what seems like 100 times) onto the soundtrack, alongside a score by Johan Soderqvist that ranges from insistently jaunty to pensive. But as calculated as it all is, there’s something seductive about the film’s old-fashioned visual and emotional vibrancy.
At a pre-wedding dinner, Patrick’s fabulously double-edged aunt Benedikte (the always wonderful Paprika Steen) paraphrases the Henry Miller aphorism: “The only thing we never get enough of is love; and the only thing we never give enough of is love.” That encapsulates the film’s philosophy. But putting it into practice proves problematic as the guests convene at Philip’s gorgeously rustic villa, which has been unused since his wife’s accidental death many years earlier.
Leif’s insensitive decision to bring along Tilde is one hindrance. Divorced social snob Benedikte’s predatory flirtation with Philip and monstrous behavior toward her sullen teenage daughter (Frederikke Thomassen) are another. Then there’s the jitters of Astrid, who senses that Patrick’s affections are tepid, though she’s way behind the audience in spotting the sexual tension between him and a tasty local lad (Ciro Petrone).
But there’s no question that the ice is melting between Ida and Philip, and the shy blossoming of mutual attraction is affectingly played by both Dyrholm and Brosnan. A scene in which he finds her taking a dip – naked and wigless – in the azure waters of a spectacular inlet is particularly lovely.
Bier is at her best in getting inside the women characters, and Dyrholm’s Ida provides the film with an emotional center that radiates compassion, vulnerability and quiet strength. Even in her most acquiescent moments Ida is never a doormat. Instead, her responses are grounded in the bruising experience of a woman stunned and unsettled by a year of tough knocks.
Marking a total about-face from her queen-bitch role in A Royal Affair, Dyrholm – familiar from In a Better World and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, the latter alongside Steen – lends the film dignity and poignancy it might otherwise have lacked.
Ida’s rapport with her grown children is sketched with rich depths of love. There are captivating scenes with her protective son Kenneth (appealing Micky Skeel Hansen), and especially with Astrid. Relative newcomer Egelind is a real find in the role – unconventionally pretty bordering on awkward, she conveys a self-exposure that’s both contained and raw.
Brosnan balances Philip’s thorny exterior with a gradual openness to expressing and receiving affection. While the romance’s outcome is inevitable from the start and might have arrived at its conclusion a tad more swiftly, this principal thread is tender and moving.
Not all the male characters are drawn with as much nuance. Bodnia plays Leif as a bit too clueless an oaf to have secured Ida’s love and loyalty for 23 years, let alone her forgiveness. And Jessen’s Patrick is a little wet. Among the more peripheral characters, Bodil Jorgensen has some funny moments as Ida’s no-boundaries salon colleague.
Audiences who enjoy Bier’s more sober melodramas might dismiss this as trite. But the slick, unapologetically commercial film – which the director’s regular distributor Sony Pictures Classics has for North America – has sweetness, charm and a generosity of spirit that will find many takers.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition; Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: Zentropa Entertainment29, Lumiere & Co., Slotmachine, Zentropa International France, Film I Vast, Zentropa Entertainments Berlin, Zentropa International Sweden, DR, Sveriges Television, Arte France Cinema, Network Movie, ZDF, Arte, Longride
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Trine Dyrholm, Molly Blixt Egelind, Sebastian Jessen, Paprika Steen, Kim Bodnia, Christiane Schaumberg-Mueller, Micky Skeel Hansen, Bodil Jorgensen, Frederikke Thomassen, Ciro Petrone
Director: Susanne Bier
Screenwriter: Anders Thomas Jensen, from a story by Bier and Jensen
Producers: Sisse Graum Jorgensen, Vibeke Windelov
Director of photography: Morten Soborg
Production designer: Peter Grant
Music: Johan Soderqvist
Costume designer: Signe Sejlund
Editors: Pernille Bech Christensen, Morten Egholm
No rating, 117 minutes