Oh, the pathos. Unless you’re very unlucky at cards you’ve been unlucky in love, which makes the torments of the jilted one of the more ordinarily/inevitable aspects of human existence. Few have been spared a love gone south; many are the friends who have listened to the anguished, keening lamentations about the one that got away and thought, with all kindness, “Enough already.” And if you don’t want your life to turn into a country song, you comply.
That said, the marvelous thing about director Christen Frei (“War Photographer,” “Space Tourists”) is how he gets the viewer to care, deeply, about the pathetic whining creatures in his latest documentary “Sleepless in New York.” As regards much of current nonfiction, it goes its own way stylistically, structurally, musically and sonically in telling the stories of people in the throes of a recent breakup, and how they cope — or, obviously, not. It’s not an issue film, or a portrait, or even the fabled hybrid doc of current definition – it isn’t based on a manufactured conceit, a la “The Act of Killing,” nor does it wander across borders like “The Imposter.” Frei’s work resembles more the work of Brit-doc innovator Brian Hill (“Drinking for England,” “Climate of Change,” “Songbirds”) who imposes art on real people and/or situations and creates mood that fits the crisis/issue/addiction at hand. Though Frei stands alone, the key asset to his film is indeed atmosphere.
Principal characters are augmented by the mini-musings of various lovelorn strangers on the subway, captured via a fish-eye lens and misshapen portraiture; ambient sound is erased, sometimes in favor of silence, giving the impression that the universe is under water; characters are mostly isolated from their teeming city, inhabiting vast spaces of their very own, and very much alone. The overall effect is to leave the characters divorced not just from the one they love, but from the world — which is precisely how they feel.
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Frei certainly found some apt people, including “love doctor” Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and Rutgers professor who has studied humans under the effects of both love and loss and revealed some extremely self-defeating facts about the brain. As Fisher demonstrates, the same impulses are generated by that delightfully perverse organ whether it’s awash in new love, or deprived of the old; like a lung deprived of oxygen, it works even harder when it’s being cut off. What might be termed romantic head trauma is not something the brain deals with well, says Fisher, who admits to having had her share of emotional pain, and is a perfectly sympathetic Virgil in a tour of heartbreak hell.
The wounded whom Frei rounds up – via flyers he posted around Manhattan, urging the recently abandoned to get in touch — include Alley Scott, a flower designer who has just split from Levy, her boyfriend of several years; Michael Hariton, a freelance translator who is obsessing heavily on the woman he lived with and who dumped him like a sack of groceries; and Rosey La Rouge, a contempo-burlesque artist who fell in love with a guy she smooched at the Mermaid Parade on the Coney Island boardwalk and who’s been stringing her along painfully. What gets them off the hook with the viewer is that they know they’re being insufferably self-absorbed; they know they shouldn’t text, or call, or email, or waste their time pining over someone who doesn’t want them and who probably doesn’t deserve them (their devotion is epic). They know all this, but as Fisher tells us it may well be out of their control: The brain reads love as an addiction, and cutting off that love is like putting a junkie on an ice floe.
The comforting thing (for the viewer; maybe for the cast) is that Frei gives them their dignity within the storytelling component of the doc, and a measure of nobility within a stylistic framework that can’t help but elevate its subject, and subjects. Their crusade is exactly that, whether the crusade is trying to salvage a love, or finally forget it. The cinematography of Peter Indergand, who has worked on Frei’s other films, is beautiful; the music of Eleni Karaindrou, Max Richter and Giya Kancheli is perfect; likewise the sound direction of Judy Karp and Florian Eidenbenz. And the characters are both sympathetic and eloquent.
Hariton puts the whole shebang in a nutshell: “It’s one of the perversities of love that the one who cares less wins.” This is not a sentiment limited to one doc or one city (New York has always provided within its crowds both a anonymity for those who want it and a solitude for those who don’t). “People pine for love, they live for love, they kill for love and they die for love,” says Fisher, who smilingly calls it a “horrible addiction.” In “Sleepless in New York,” it’s also vaguely romantic.
“Sleepless in New York” recently played at Hot Docs in Toronto. It does not currently have a U.S. distributor.