What is this film called Love?

Director: Mark Cousins
Writer: Mark Cousins
Year: 2012
Cast: Mark Cousins

★★★☆☆

What is this film called Love?

A question in the proper sense, open-ended, unanswerable, something to think about long after the credits have rolled. It is a very personal film, a sort of meditative documentary, shot by Mark Cousins on a £100 flip camera during a lonely three day trip to Mexico City. To use the director’s own terminology, it is an ad-lib, a stream-of-consciousness take on whatever he captures with his camera, a film without boundaries that develops, through personal memories and free association, into a rough philosophy of life.

Loosely, it begins as a film about Sergei Eisenstein, a figure who evidently means a lot to Cousins. As he walks around the streets of Mexico City, which Eisenstein visited in the 1930s, he holds a photograph out in front of him and talks to an imaginary version of the Soviet director, which seems to have influenced his life and career as much as the real thing. While always slightly bizarre, this technique has the effect of turning a series of spontaneous observations into something resembling a purposeful piece of cinema.

What is this Film Called Love? Mark Cousins

Comparing his own filmmaking style to that of Eisenstein, Cousins uses illustrative shots to highlight different ways of seeing the world, demonstrating the effect that filmmaking has on your perception. Whether or not he consciously decided to come to that point is irrelevant – as a wandering director with camera in hand, it was inevitable. The most interesting scenes are those that explicitly deal with film, which is, after all, Cousins’s passion and area of expertise. What is this film called Love? is at its best when he opts to analyse the characters on a street corner as if they were in a Jacques Tati film, or captures a shot of a motorway bridge because its diagonal lines remind him of the geometry in Soviet cinema.

The Mexico City scenes are interspersed with holiday footage and dream sequences, which are used to elucidate some of Cousins’s observations and provide catharsis to the busy, unaesthetic metropolis. The use of montage is also excellent, and the choice of music, which includes some new PJ Harvey tracks and Tony Christie’s Avenues and Alleyways, is inspired.

Eventually, the film settles into a quasi-philosophical tone, structurally and thematically reminiscent of the bestselling novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Central to the novel is the Vedantic expression tat tvam asi, which means you are that, and Cousins’s real achievement is translating this principle into the medium of film. Using the camera, he develops a deep connection to the world around him, finding beauty and significance in everything. He makes it personal, into a part of himself. This is what he means by love.

It sounds extremely promising, but much of what you take from the film has little to do with its execution. The narration tends to be heavy handed, and the female narrator takes something away from the intimate tone, despite her misplaced protestations to the contrary in the concluding scenes. The film often comes across as self-indulgent, a little too private for public viewing. Cousins ultimately fails to make the experience as much ours as his. At one point he says that it is not a serious film, but we are forced to take it seriously in order to engage with it.

Like Pirsig’s novel, I have found it difficult to get out of my head without being particularly impressed by it at the time. The ideas are there, as a work in progress, but the limitations of the project are all too obvious. The rough approach may be liberating for the filmmaker but sacrifices must be made in the final product. Cousins does not succeed – he does not genuinely try to succeed – in making a film, but has nevertheless captured something tangible and true.

Rob Dickie

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