Uncompromisingly elliptical, but often touching and funny, partly staged docu “What Is Love” strings together five portraits of relatively ordinary Austrians whose daily activities provide oblique answers to the pic’s unpunctuated title question. Film reps the long-time-coming follow-up to Austrian writer-helmer Ruth Mader’s 2003 debut “Struggle,” and will enhance her reputation for austere, typically Austrian fare, especially given this rarefied work’s similarity to fellow Austrian Ulrich Seidl’s docu efforts, even if it’s not as twisted or bleak. But pic won’t find much love among distribs beyond Teutonic territories. All the same, feelings of affection from fest programmers will be strong.
Each of the pic’s miniaturist studies feels self-sufficient enough to work as shorts, although the cumulative impact they offer as a package would be lost as such.
The first, most emotionally charged chapter tracks thirtysomething ophthalmologist Saskia Maca as she moves around her spacious but ominously empty home, examines several patients, and later cuddles her sister’s newborn child. At times, a look of what might be loneliness, bereavement or maybe just indigestion clouds Maca’s pretty features, but no explanation of her circumstances is ever offered. Given she’s seen dancing in a nightclub, auds might infer she’s looking for love, but hasn’t yet found it.
In contrast with the first installment’s hushed tone, the second features a garrulous twosome (Walter Scalet and Eva Suchy) who clearly have been through couples’ therapy of some sort, given the way they discuss domestic issues, methodically pausing to acknowledge and review each emotion. (“I hear that you are unhappy with the way I did the dishes and acknowledge it,” is roughly the gist of their talk.)
A very different kind of love — love of God — anchors the third segment, which centers on priest Jonas Horak, seen preparing for a service and later distributing leaflets in the street with members of his flock. Then it’s back to families and couples with the next two installments. Young mother Sandra Steininger is seen toiling in a factory, an oddly mesmerizing interlude that features one of the pic’s very few uses of a moving camera. Finally, bourgeois hausfrau Helen Bubna chides her husband Michael for not taking her out more often.
Based on evidence here, love is rather less a many-splendored thing than a matter of compromise, the endurance of drudgery, and a willingness to wear neckties even if you hate them, a pleasingly honest if unromantic assessment. As such, the pic is fairly congruent with Mader’s “Struggle,” which similarly explored fraught parental feelings, loneliness and dysfunctional relationships. And like “Struggle,” “What Is Love” straddles the line between docu and fiction, staying just barely on the side of the former although clearly certain sequences have been choreographed or partially staged in advance.
Use of proper film stock adds an extra heft to the proceedings, which could so easily have been shot on digital. Long takes and static set-ups enhance the air of arthouse minimalism, but there’s a clear precision to Mader’s method.