Sprite-like Irish film critic, historian and documaker Mark Cousins has done many commendable things to honor the medium he loves so deeply — notably last year’s “The Story of Film” — but his fatuous vanity project “What Is This Film Called Love?” is not among them. A whimsical travel diary of sorts following Cousins as he ambles around Mexico City for three days with only a laminated photo of Sergei Eisenstein for company, the film is openly intended as an off-the-cuff doodle, but its professed modesty swiftly proves self-aggrandizing. Cousins’ conscientious reputation will ensure plentiful fest bookings; distributors will be less charmed.
Six years in the making and weighing in at 15 hours, Cousins’ cinema-history doc “The Story of Film” was presumably an exhausting undertaking, so it’s not surprising that his follow-up finds him thinking a little smaller. “This wee film’s going to be the opposite of (my previous ones),” his unmistakably accented voiceover intones near the beginning. “It’s not trying to change the world in any way.”
The implication that Cousins’ other films do indeed have world-changing ambitions will strike some viewers as affectedly self-important and others as beguilingly idealistic, and auds are likely to split along similar lines in response to his latest. Forever enraptured by the world around him as he restlessly lily-pads from one cinematic or literary reference to another, the filmmaker’s authorial voice is less distracting when tethered to external matters of film or politics. When his chief subject is himself, however, it’s more of an acquired taste.
Additional third-person narration from an unseen female presence — whose identity is eventually revealed in a twist that seemingly nods to one of his favorite filmmakers, Apichatpong Weerasethakul — amplifies the sense of self-examination. Both she and Cousins muse on how the various social and historical changes visible in Mexico City are reflected in Cousins’ own life and work. Cousins addresses many of his observations directly to Eisenstein, another of his filmmaking heroes, who himself spent time in the city more than 80 years ago. This one-way dialogue is the film’s most playful device, but its chummy tone (“There have been a few changes here, amigo,”) tips over into twee.
Cousins feigns to lay himself bare here — literally so, as one sequence finds him running stark naked through the desert, as he elatedly enthuses, “My body is the best thing I have.” Still, it’s hard to escape the sense that the scrappily self-shot “What Is This Film Called Love?” is a carefully managed performance piece, documenting and consolidating the persona that has won Cousins so many followers among the cinephile set.