Having seen and loved Mark Cousins’ almost unreviewably subjective “What Is This Film Called Love” on its international premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last week (read about that experience here), we got to sit down with Cousins in person pretty much immediately afterwards. And it felt rather like walking straight back into the film we had just left: ‘What Is This Film’ is so unapologetically personal that it’s difficult to escape the feeling that, like him or not, you kind of know Cousins by the end of it.
The man we met entirely bore our own impressions out. As erudite and passionate about films and filmmaking as you would expect from the creator of the mammoth, already canonical 15-hour-long “The Story of Film,” there is also a restless energy about him, and a friendly informality that entirely gels with the persona he projects onscreen, and that made it an easy pleasure to chat to him about the music, the inspirations and the challenges behind making his "ad-lib" of a film.
How do you think a film as personal and individual as this one will be received?
“Well, I just felt that if I was completely honest about my own emotions then people might see something [in it]. Some will say it’s just an ego trip or something…” says Cousins, later adding, “I’m sure I’m going to get horrible reviews! I can already see the one star ratings.”
However the few times it has screened to date have also brought their fair share of positivity, our own included: “film bloggers [who’ve seen it] so many of them have reviewed it as a personal letter to me, and talked about their own lives. [Er, guilty!] The fact is, when you make something like this, you don’t know what you’ve made, but if it makes people reflect on their own emotions, then that’s fantastic...I know I’ve made something that is sincere and captures those three days in my life, three days I can never get back. I was on my own and just as alive as I've ever been.”
It’s the kind of personal essay that could easily have remained a putative pet project, or just a scribble in a notebook. At what point did it really become a film?
“I’m always making things, and I did it to fill my three days. But no, I didn’t know what it would turn into. I knew I was being stimulated by thinking about Eisenstein’s ideas, so I went home and showed my editor: ‘I’ve just shot this thing, there might be something here and I know it’s from the heart.’ So we started to cut it (we cut very fast)...and we got it to 75 minutes and looked at it and thought ‘oh! There could be something here.’ And then we sent it to PJ Harvey.”
Cousins had included in the rough cut the PJ Harvey track “To Bring You My Love,” which is also in the final film, and sent the early edit to her to see if she would allow its use. Her response, he suggests, was instrumental in building his confidence about the project. “She sent me the most beautiful letter back saying she’d been inspired by the film and ‘Here are two new tracks as well, would you consider using them?’ And we used them, of course. So the first piece of music in the film is a PJ Harvey song that had never been used in public before, and it’s about Mexico -- by pure chance.”
He is well aware of the alchemical effect her tracks have on the film. “I said to [her afterwards] ‘Your music lifts this film off the ground,’ which I really think it does. Also what she does is she genders the film in a very interesting way. Surprisingly I would have made a more feminine film if it hadn’t been for PJ Harvey. Her music is hard and her voice is [growls huskily] so she provides this quite masculine element to what’s otherwise quite a gentle thing. I love that.”