A couple of years ago, at a different film festival in a different country, I had a terrific time with Mark Cousins‘ engagingly/exhaustingly self-indulgent doodle, “What Is This Film Called Love?” and a tough time trying to marshall my scattered and immensely, consciously subjective impressions into the semblance of a coherent review. So at the Göteborg International Film Festival, I was looking forward to “Life May Be,” a similarly personal, intimate, lo-fi filmic essay that Cousins co-directed with Iranian director Mania Akbari, perhaps hoping it would have the same pleasantly discombobulating effect. But “Life May Be,” here benefitting from the added interest of a new point of view from Akbari, while just as erudite and idiosyncratic as we might expect from Cousins (seriously, if you are not already a fan, this will not be the film to convince you), felt cooler, less generous with its sensation of wrapping the audience up in galumphing intellectual curiosity. It is just as unapologetically self-centered as his previous films (even if there are two centers here), but in the end it’s less joyously wonky, mostly because, as a viewer, I felt like I was perched on the outside of an interchange that is a closed loop.
In Cousins’ filmography, “What is this Film Called Love?” and “Life May Be” are separated by three other features: documentaries that either take cinema as their subject, like “The Story of Children and Film,” form a kind of travelogue, as with “6 Desires: DH Lawrence and Sardinia,” or fall somewhere between the two, as with his essay on Albania’s decaying film archives and what that means for the collective national memory, “Here Be Dragons.” Cousins has by now evolved a style, even in his most formally classical docs that is more confessional and personal (and therefore enjoyably passionate) than “objective,” whatever that means. Within this narrowly defined territory, ‘Love’ and ‘Life’ seem even more closely bracketed together, with many of the concerns and concepts Cousins brings up in ‘Love’ informing his letters to Akbari which form his half of ‘Life.’ Poetry, nudity, bodies, transience, memory, travel, art, and the artist — Cousins is as fascinated by these concepts and their power and infinite mystery as ever.
In reply, Akbari, who many of us may still know best as the actress who played the Driver in Abbas Kiarostami‘s “Ten,” takes many of these topics and makes them her own. In fact, the film’s moments of greatest power come mostly from her innately poetic, self-analyzing sensibility being spurred to look at something anew so as to present it to her fascinated correspondent, whether it’s the pictures of the house in Iran from which she fled and to which she cannot return, or her thoughts about her body, complicated anyway as an Iranian woman now living in the West, and even more so now since developing (and recovering from surgery for) breast cancer.
The project began when Cousins, an admirer of Akbari’s filmmaking already, was asked to write a blurb for her film “One. Two. One” and instead wrote her a letter. As the correspondence continues over course of five video letters, a kind of digital “84 Charing Cross Road” occurs — an intensely intellectual mutual seduction. Oddly, as beguiling as that sounds, it’s an approach that leaves little room for the viewer, who is only as involved here as the spectator at a tennis match, watching lofty concepts served and returned with skill and intelligence and wit, but never really being invited to play, to make one’s own meaning out of the fragments of inspiration being lobbed and volleyed between the two.
Nor are we quite eavesdropping either, though, which would bring its own sort of prurient thrill. There is an inbuilt artifice to the form, an edge of self-consciousness to the conversation, which is perhaps inevitable given they are both the subjects of the film and its co-directors. Their interaction, so far from the conflict-is-drama rule, is so harmonious that it has an almost lulling effect. As if to bear this out, the final segment of the film, the final “letter” is wordless, just a long montage of images collected from various parts of the world, sometimes banal, sometimes beautiful, set to a classical piece by Brahms, as though in their mutual connection they have found a purely cinematic, conceptual space to share. The essay form is notoriously subjective, and perhaps on a different day or with different expectations I might have found more points of access (there are certainly enough potentially thought-provoking ideas raised), but ultimately it was a space I remained frustratingly outside of, like with someone else’s dream. [B-]