TORONTO — Danish director Susanne Bier is accustomed to artistic risk-taking, whether it’s aesthetic (the shaky-cam Dogme style of 2002’s Open Hearts) or thematic (the Afghan War in 2004’s Brothers) or the seductions and dangers of retributive violence in her Oscar-winning In a Better World (2010).
But it’s surprising to hear that Bier feels her latest film, the romantic comedy Love Is All You Need, is her “most controversial movie yet.”
On the surface there is little to spark outrage in Love, which debuted to acclaim in Venice before charming audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. The movie stars Pierce Brosnan as a lonely widower and In a Better World‘s Trine Dyrholm as a cancer patient whose husband leaves her for a woman half her age. Their fates intertwine when both travel to Italy to celebrate the wedding of his son and her daughter.
Love Is All You Need bowed at the Danish box office last weekend with more than 100,000 admissions, a career-best for Bier and more than twice the box office of In a Better World. TrustNordisk had sold out Love rights to before its Toronto debut, with Sony Pictures Classics picking up the film for domestic release.
But for Bier, the move back into comedy — her first since Once in a Lifetime in 2000 — was fraught with creative peril.
“It’s a movie that is unashamedly romantic — which is something that is difficult to make today,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter in Toronto. “If you don’t infuse the romance with cynicism these days, it is somehow controversial. … I was kind of terrified to let this movie out because I thought, ‘Some people are going to kill me for this.’ It sounds strange to say, but in a way I think this film demanded more courage that some of my dramas.”
Bier says she would label Love a romantic comedy but only “very, very hesitantly”; the script, which Bier co-wrote with her longtime collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen, twists the conventions of the genre.
The film opens with Dyrholm’s character in a cancer ward getting her diagnosis after having a partial mastectomy. Loneliness, disappointment and death are recurring themes. There are few easy laughs.
“We are consciously playing with the romantic comedy genre,” says Bier. “When Mr. Jensen and I started out, we wanted to make a movie that addresses the issue of cancer. Like almost everyone else in the Western world, cancer is a very real thing to us — my mother has had it twice and so has Mr. Jensen’s mother. We wanted to make a movie where it was part of the movie, but we didn’t want it to be heavy. We wanted something that was light and where audiences weren’t alienated by it. So we came to romantic comedy from a slightly unusual place. I actually think it is a love story, but love stories have to have a sad ending. Because it has a happy ending, it’s a romantic comedy.”
For Brosnan, Love Is All You Need is a “companion piece” to the crowd-pleasing musical romp Mamma Mia!, in which he starred and also features a fall-fall romance set against the backdrop of a Mediterranean wedding bash.
“They are bookends, really; I think they sit well on the shelf together,” Brosnan tells THR. “But Mamma Mia! is a musical, and this is not. It’s a drama with laughs. It’s about cancer and hope and faith and the new beginnings of life and how you can find love regardless of the hardships you take on. Both are about love and families, about weddings and celebration. But your readers and the world at large will be happy to hear that I don’t sing in this one!”
Love Is All You Need is one of three films shortlisted to become Denmark’s entry for next year’s best foreign-language film Oscar race. The Danish entry will be announced Sept. 18.