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Our Karlovy Vary Film Fest Reviewer Experiences A Personal Epiphany At Mark Cousins’ ‘What Is This Film Called Love’

Our Karlovy Vary Film Fest Reviewer Experiences A Personal Epiphany At Mark Cousins’ ‘What Is This Film Called Love’

OK, this is going to be a tricky one. Celebrating its international premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, having only screened before at the festival in Edinburgh, the new film from Mark Cousins had an effect on us on such a completely subjective and personal level that it all but defies attempts to marshal those scattered impressions into a coherent, generalised review. But said effects were so positive for us, we’re going to try anyway. Essentially, we were charmed beyond belief by this rambling, philosophizing self-described “ad lib” of a film, but we absolutely can’t guarantee the same reaction from anyone else.

That said, perhaps that very uncertainty is part of the film’s appeal: we’ve spoken to enough other people who had similarly individual, gut-level responses to hazard that part of its magic is in its reflecting-pool-like quality. Something about it demands that you map your personal experiences onto the very personal experience Cousins is having onscreen, and, if you’re lucky, the points of confluence and convergence of his story and yours may provide surprisingly actionable insights into your own life. Or you might find it insufferably student-y and pretentious. Good Lord, we are tempted to write every sentence of this review twice over, exchanging positive adjectives (“whimsical” “inspirational” “beguiling”) for negative (“messy” “amateurish” “boring”) and suggesting you take a delete-where-appropriate approach.  

Let’s try again. To gauge which category (lover or hater) you might fall into, assess your reaction to the following summary: in conscious counterpoint to the six years of rigorous research and disciplined craft that went into his 15-hour documentary opus “The Story of Film,” Cousins “goes dark” in Mexico City for three days, his only companions being a tiny dv camera, a notebook and a laminated photograph of Sergei Eisenstein, to which he addresses many of his voiceover musings. He walks the streets his hero also walked, describes his dreams and his love of nakedness, recites poetry, has revelations and walks some more. Sound intriguingly offbeat to you? Enjoy the ride. Sound dangerously self-indulgent? Proceed with caution.

Because of course it is totally, unapologetically self-indulgent, which is perhaps why it prompted such a self-indulgent response. And for us it stops short of pretension because of the playfulness and capriciousness on display. Cousins comes over as an erudite, intellectual man, well-read and unafraid of talking seriously about serious subjects. But he is also witty, self-effacing and in possession of a keen sense of the absurdity of what he’s attempting and the high probability it will be misunderstood, or turn out just plain boring. At other times he’s downright silly, and crucially, he’s never afraid to change his mind. If you are so inclined, he’s a terrific traveling companion.

And for all the shaky cam (apologised for repeatedly), and the absence of sync sound (remarked upon, explained) right down to the threadbare budget which demands, amusingly, that a scene in which he’s talking about an Elvis Presley song playing in a cafe has some stock music-sounding rockabilly over it instead (he draws our attention to this, too), there are lovely, impressive flourishes here and there that even detractors would be hard-pressed to deny. The camerawork, achieved on the tiny handheld camera, is often quite beautiful, capturing majestic vistas and scrappy details alike. The PJ Harvey tracks that open and close the film are apropos, lovely and harsh the way only she can sound, and setting a tone by turns questing, nostalgic and regretful, that suits the film entirely. In fact the whole soundtrack is pretty choice, with the all-over-the-map narrative allowing those PJ Harvey tracks to sit comfortably alongside the utter cheesiness of Tony Christie‘s “Avenues and Alleyways,” which nestles up in neighbourly fashion to Bernard Herrman’s Vertigo” love theme (yes, somewhere, Kim Novak is scrubbing herself raw in the shower). And Cousins’ inspirations are writ large too, not only by Eisenstein’s theoretical work, but Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion and the poetry of Frank O’Hara all exert their pull in his mind, and therefore on the film’s direction and narrative. If you’re gonna borrow interest, they’re pretty much impeccable sources.

And for all its episodic monomania, you have to credit the bravery of the endeavor, or perhaps at least its endearing foolhardiness. There is nowhere for Cousins to hide here, nothing included that he didn’t choose, no opinion expressed that is not his own, however influenced. He risks ridicule on the one hand, and the probability of henceforth dealing with oversharing, overfamiliar fans who feel they completely know him as a result of seeing this film or the other. We wonder if he will at any point get sick of the conversations he has invited?

So have we made the point yet? It’s undoubedly not for everyone, or possibly even most people, and unlikely to impress even the whole hardcore of arthouse aficionados, let alone the multiplex crowd (though it’s also unlikely to be screened in the average multiplex, so that’s lucky). But all those caveats aside, let me lapse for a moment from our Playlist-mandated first person plural, to tell you about the great time I had with this film. It didn’t just entertain me, it inspired me, and actually kind of helped me, like some sort of gonzo I Ching.
So with just one further reminder, that the grade appended here is entirely the grade for the experience this writer had, and in no way an attempt to categorize the empirical merits of the film (maybe a B-?), or to predict what general reaction might be (oof, can we give it a range? Yes? Then A-F), let’s cross the finish line. “What Is This Film Called Love,” as off-the-cuff and wonky and idiosyncratic as it is, didn’t just make me think about things in my life, it prompted me to decide. Whether that makes it a good film or not is up for debate, but in that light it would be disingenuous, not to say dishonest, of me to grade it any lower. [A-]

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