Mark Cousins’ latest film follows his tremendous fifteen hour epic The Story of Film: An Odyssey, but is a polar opposite work from that documentary in terms of scale and ambition. Indeed, the creation of What Is This Film Called Love? was based on a whim, with a shooting budget of £5.80, and that was just for laminating a picture of Sergei Eisenstein. Initially inspired by Mexico City where he was staying, the film doesn’t attempt to promote a cause to do with the location, but is instead that rare beast of the documentary format: one that is autobiographical. This is a film of unabashed emotional candidness – and general candidness, considering Cousins bares all in a documented nude trek in Monument Valley – which will likely prove an instantly detrimental quality to many, but those open to its style and focus on the self may find potency in its wilful individuality and meditative atmosphere.
If there is any filmmaker whose work this documentary can be compared to, it is perhaps Chris Marker with his brand of traveller’s diary films like Sans soleil. What Is This Film Called Love? is very much in a similar poetic vein, with a comparable mix of heady visuals and audio accompaniment, and it is a poem primarily about movement, memory and change. It starts with Cousins during a three day stay in Mexico City. Remembering that director Sergei Eisenstein, one of his heroes, had also spent time there, he proceeds to walk throughout the city to as far and for as long as he can, with a picture of Eisenstein as a companion for various musings. He updates Eisenstein on changes to both the world and cinema (informing him Walt Disney “turned into a bit of an arse”; “it was on YouTube so he watched it”), and attempts to discover the meaning behind Eisenstein’s theory of ‘ecstasy’: Cousins’ naked trek in the valley, filmed earlier by his girlfriend, is used to represent the sensation of how Eisenstein’s work makes him feel.
Given the footage’s reliance on how far and where Cousins walks to, the film’s rhythm and thematic reaches are appropriately limited to the act of movement, though various artistic influences also bear influence on the film’s voice. The music of PJ Harvey and some film score extracts are prominent, and a certain piece from Vertigo is used to greater impact here than in The Artist, while Virginia Woolf and Orlando seem like clear inspirations for some of the film’s climactic concepts, and its shifting voices of narration. This is a seemingly modest film with some appealing big ideas, and is an enjoyable and often funny journey should you be open to its particular wavelengths.