Stockholm, My Love
It’s not unknown for film directors to start their career as critics, but Mark Cousins is one of the rare breed who practice both disciplines at the same time. As such, it can be hard to avoid looking for connections, seeing the criticism and films as the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of Cousins’s brain. Sometimes, as in his already-classic miniseries The Story of Film, this is very easy: Cousins the critic is using Cousins the film-maker to advance his arguments.
His recent work – such as Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise, I Am Belfast and Stockholm My Love, the latter of which has just been released on BFI Blu-Ray – move away from explicit criticism into, perhaps, criticism by example. They might represent the kind of films Cousins thinks we need more of: allusive, poetic, emotive documentaries, finding their roots in everything from the silent-era ‘city symphony’ genre to modern archive collage, with a detour around the radical 1960s films alluded to in the titles for I Am Belfast and Stockholm My Love.
These are influences that your reviewer is right on board with, and Cousins’s work has impressed me in the past. Unfortunately, Stockholm My Love is a bit of a misfire, an attempt to step outside Cousins’s usual documentary stomping ground that’s sabotaged by its own timidity. A vocal disciple of the Iranian New Wave, it was inevitable that Cousins would eventually follow their lead and mix fact and fiction, but the audacity that marks out the best documentary-fiction hybrids is missing here.
The ghosts of docufiction past cast their shadows over Stockholm My Love. Using a fictional character – Alva, played by Neneh Cherry – to examine a city recalls Patrick Keiller’s Robinson trilogy, while a scene where Alva comments on real passers-by brings to mind John Smith’s classic short The Girl Chewing Gum. The loudest allusion is obviously to Alain Resnais, but invoking Hiroshima My Love only throws light on the problems of Cousins’s film. Resnais’s investigation of memory had real stakes; the question of how we remember crimes against humanity is the most heated retrospective debate imaginable.
Despite the odd mention of real-life traumas like the Olof Palme assassination, Alva is actually preoccupied with a fictional personal tragedy, one that may be a bit too familiar to viewers of recent American indies. I can imagine people finding the documentary material about Sweden interesting, and I can imagine people finding Alva’s story interesting – but I can’t imagine many people not feeling like they get in the way of each other, and in the case of the latter half you do have to get past Cherry’s sullen performance.
Cherry comes to life in purely visual scenes, such as Christopher Doyle’s ghostly close-ups, or one welcome moment of exuberance where she rides a rollercoaster. She also sings and raps several songs, which she inevitably seems more comfortable with, although the rest of the movie’s soundtrack is marred by the fact that Cousins is much, much more enamoured of Franz Berwald’s symphonies than I am.
In the end, despite Doyle’s typically evocative work, it’s Cousins the critic who saves Cousins the director. In a series of short but rewarding extracts, he casts some interesting light on his working process and ideas. In an amusing self-interview in the booklet, he admits he probably makes too many films, but it’s a need he can’t ignore. That’s to his credit, as is the willingness to experiment, even when, as it does here, it doesn’t come off. Next time, if he wants an even bigger challenge, he could follow Damien Chazelle’s lead and pour his interest in city symphonies into a full-on musical.