After taking six years to make the mammoth, often inspiring The Story of Film: An Odyssey, film critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins was in the mood to make something quick and scrappy. This he named What Is This Film Called Love?
With three days to kill thanks to a scheduling cock-up, Cousins finds himself in Mexico City with absolutely nothing to do. Exhausted from the production and now the promotion of The Story of Film, he suddenly gets the urge to make a film with an inexpensive flip camera, no crew and no planning. He walks around the city for three days, filming and making notes. He takes along a photograph of Sergei Eisenstein, another filmmaker who found himself in Mexico with a film to make – ¡Que Viva Mexico! Cousins talks to the photograph about the state of cinema and of Mexico City today. This loose style leads to a series of ruminations through art, landscape, life and memory.
The key cinematic forebear here is so obvious that it seems trite to mention it, but Cousins’ film is heavily indebted to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil almost to a fault. Cousins, in voiceover, repeatedly reminds us that the film is an improvisation – the film even has a subtitle: ‘An Ad-Lib.’ Cousins merely filmed whatever caught his eye, making notes as he did so and, later, found the film in the editing. However, the film is much too self-conscious and much too aware of its debt to Marker that it is hard to believe that Cousins didn’t at the very least cobble together some kind of framework for the film before he left his hotel room each day. Chris Marker did not pretend to merely stumble upon his films and Cousins’ assertion that his filmmaking instincts, much in evidence, are solely responsible for the cohesion of his visuals is slightly disingenuous.
That said, the film is not without worth. Indeed, if more films were to be made like this, the cinema would be a much more interesting, and dangerous, place to spend time. Films ought to challenge the ways we see and understand cinema, to innovate. A Story of Film is full of talk of the innovations in world cinema – from Godard’s jump cuts to Ozu’s evocative ambiguities – yet it remains free of its own. And because films like Sans Soleil are such a rarity, a film like What Is This Film Called Love? might feel innovative, if not radical, when it really isn’t. However, Cousins is a charming and interesting guide, if a touch exhibitionist. His film is funny and full of ideas, his conversations with Sergei Eisenstein work remarkably well as a framework, the disparate elements, the ‘improvs’, hanging off it successfully regardless of their individual quality. We get the idea, one probably not planned, of a filmmaker still in their early phase, searching through cinema, looking for the key methods and inspirations that will make up his next film, the one that will be truly his. The film is infectious in its love of filmmaking, almost inciting the audience to grab a camera and film their own wanderings and ruminations.
What Is This Film Called Love? is deeply personal, almost self-consciously so – Cousins tells us things that he thinks we should know, without the film asking for it – but it is not Cousins’ film. It is Sergei Eisenstein’s and Chris Marker’s. In an awkward ending, it becomes the work of Virginia Woolf. Twice the film stops and is usurped entirely by PJ Harvey’s music – one track written exclusively for this film. Even the landscapes will take over. Monument Valley and the area around San Quentin are fascinating but, arguably, not because of how Cousins films them, but simply because of their existence. Sometimes, the film even falls into the habits of someone with nothing to do – people watching – as if Cousins really is just waiting for his flight out of the city and back to his real work. Cousins will merely film a street and comment on the people who pass by his lenses or just give the camera to some children. Worst of all, he films a fly. Cousins wants the world to express itself through his camera, but denies himself any editorial control beyond a navel-gazing voiceover. Some of the above instances are successful (Eisenstein, Marker, Monument Valley, the children) but there is a lack of editorial or quality control – as if the fact of its existence is enough. The so-called auteur theory was useful for recommendations (how else would you see a film as good as A Man Escaped again if you didn’t know Robert Bresson subsequently made Pickpocket?), but reductive elsewhere. Nonetheless, What Is This Film Called Love? needs more of an authorial presence, one that knows what the film called love actually is and one that is less open to the vagaries of chance.
What Is This Film Called Love? is a visual essay with a philosophical voiceover, made with a willingness to allow chance to influence the production. All admirable features and frequently successful in themselves, yet the film remains haphazard and a minor work. It is a throwaway film when it should be one that rewards multiple viewings, it should be brimming with good ideas, not just any idea. It is inspiring and a fascinating work, open to life and in love with the world, infectious in its love for the acting of making films, but it is slight and, ultimately, hit and miss.
See also: La Jetée
See also: La Jetée