There’s a moment in Susanne Bier’s Love is All You Need where Trine Dyrholm, playing Ida, a Danish hairstylist in Italy for her daughter’s wedding, is asked by her son what she ever saw in her husband, Leif. She has to think about it. Finally she says, “he has good table manners.” And she doesn’t mean it as a put-down or an insult. She treats it as a serious answer to a serious question. And she’s a bit taken aback when her son laughs.
Most Americans don’t know Susanne Bier’s work, even after her extraordinary film In a Better World was nominated for an Oscar and even though she’s made English language films, most particularly Things We Lost in the Fire, where she got amazing performances from Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. She’s been making terrific films since 1991, 16 all told, and I’m hard-pressed to point to a single one I would consider a favorite. Love is All You Need (the English title is awful: the Danish title Den Skaldede Frisør means ‘The Bald Hairstylist‘) is her first romantic comedy; the title, and the casting of Pierce Brosnan were probably intended to appeal to American audiences. But as with all her work, the humor and pathos are rooted in characters we care about and believe in–in finely crafted studies of foolish and desperate humanity.
Trine Dyrholm plays Ida, the hairstylist of the title, bald due to chemo-therapy treatments for breast cancer, which, as the film begins, have just concluded. Throughout most of the film, she wears a blonde wig, attractive enough that it’s a bit shocking the first time she takes it off. As she comes home from the hospital, after a final consultation with her surgeon, she catches Leif, her husband, having acrobatic sex with Thilde (Christiane Schaumberg-Müller), who, he tells her, is the accountant at work. Leif–a schlubby, chubby buffoon, played with sad-sack brio by Kim Bodnia–can barely bring himself to apologize, insinuating that his affair is Ida’s fault, for getting cancer and upsetting him so. Amazingly enough, she doesn’t shoot him; merely nods to herself a bit, terribly hurt but unwilling to let him see how much.
Meanwhile, Philip (Pierce Brosnan), runs what seems to be a produce wholesale firm, selling radishes and lemons and oranges all over Europe. The firm is headquartered in Denmark, but he’s never bothered to learn to speak Danish, though he seems to understand it fairly well. Philip’s an unpleasant boss, belittling his employees and constantly shouting orders over his cell phone. But we learn he hasn’t always been like this. He has yet to recover from the traffic accident death of his wife, which has left him bitter and angry at the world.
The film is about the relationship between Ida and Philip, and what brings them together is a wedding. Ida’s daughter, Astrid (Molly Blixt Egeland) and Philip’s son, Patrick (Sebastian Jessen), are getting married in Italy, at a villa Philip bought for his wife, which he has hardly been able to bring himself to visit since her death. And as the guests gather, we meet other family eccentrics. Leif is obviously in attendance, with Thilde the sexy accountant, and cluelessly has no idea why the other family members are upset with him. Aren’t we all adults? Also present is Philip’s appalling sister-in-law, Benedikte (Paprika Steen), much given to long, soppy, utterly inappropriate speeches at dinner. Kudos to Steen; Benedikte’s a brilliant comic creation, the kind of horrible person who says wildly offensive things to people, then laughs merrily, like that makes it better. Ida’s son, Kenneth (Micky Skeel Hansen), a soldier fighting in Afghanistan, is unexpectedly wounded and present; we sense how fiercely he loves and wants to protect his mother, and he finally punches out Leif, after Thilde the accountant hits on him while drunk. Oh, and there’s Patrick’s best friend, Alessandro, who Patrick thinks has inappropriate feelings for poor Astrid. (Turns out, Alessandro’s more into Patrick). And maybe my favorite character in the film, Benedikte’s hostile and sullen daughter Alexandra (Frederikka Thomassen), who makes it clear to everyone that she’s been dragged to this miserable wedding by her horrible Mom, so if she gets drunk and barfs on peoples’ shoes, they’re just going to have to live with it.
What I loved about the film is that these characters just seem very real, their eccentricities not forced or caricatured, but just part of who they are. And through it all, we see Ida’s inherent goodness, her radiant optimism, her willingness to forgive even her awful husband and his selfish witch of a girlfriend. Things don’t go well at the wedding, and they go especially badly for characters we’ve grown to like immensely. But it never feels formulaic or conventional. It never feels like Biers’ screenplay is following the established tropes of romantic comedy, though in fact, in retrospect, it’s a beautifully structured (and pretty conventional) rom-com. It doesn’t feel like one, though: just following these interesting people as they get on with their lives, and as melancholy in tone as it is, at times, hilarious.
But here’s one of the things I love about it. Philip’s villa is on the Mediterranean, and one morning, Ida decides to go for a swim. The airline has lost her luggage, so she goes skinny dipping in a secluded cove–it’s not like anyone can see her. But it’s Philip’s villa; he knows the cove, and he sees her. She steps out of the sea, and we finally see the ravages of cancer–we see her naked, bald, surgically scarred, a woman in her forties. And of course, she’s immediately embarrassed, and Pierce Brosnan offers her his jacket, averting his eyes like a gentleman. But we’ve seen her, briefly, naked, and so has he. And we can tell that he’s blown away by her, by her openness, her fearlessness, her kindness, and also, despite age and illness, her beauty.
This is not, I think, Susanne Biers’ best film. But it may be a good introduction to her work, if you haven’t seen her other movies. It’s a grown-up rom-com, a lovely tribute to middle-aged love. Check it out.