Love can be a tough sell for all us jaded single folk out here in the world. Most of the time it’s the cloying, “love is all you need” and “my one and only soul mate” mentality that makes our romantic isolation – whether self-imposed or otherwise – feel unusual and inadequate, like we’re missing out on something grand, like the real party is on the next floor above us and we weren’t invited. This is especially true for most of the execrable output of the romantic comedy model. Thankfully, though, documentary films about love tend to be more committed to an idea of verisimilitude, and not just in terms of painting a more complete picture of love, but one certainly less abstract and much more complex in its variations. Love Etc. (2010) is a quality film which makes love interesting even for us bitter kids, and it does so by not essentializing love as an absolute thing.
Love Etc. smartly focuses its theme – a very large one indeed – on the experiences of five New York City couples, spread across five disparate boroughs. These New Yorkers are introduced in quick succession by intertitles like “Getting Married,” “Starting Over,” “Starting a Family,” “First Love,” and “Lasting Love,” which suitably represents the various states of love, from its flirtatious first encounter to its last days. Our (strictly monogamous) couples include: Chitra and Mahendra, living in Jamaica Hills, freshly engaged and presently planning their wedding; Ethan, living in Forest Hills, divorced with two kids and trying to find a suitable mate through online dating; Scott, living in Harlem, a single gay man who wants children; Gabriel and Danielle, living in SoHo, together in their first serious relationship and what that means in high school and beyond; and finally, Albert and Marion, living in Canarsie, happily married for 48 years and still very much in love.
These five stories are structured to compliment or contradict each other on topics such as lust, sex, children, financial support, disappointment, distance, divorce/breaking up, and others. They are given richness by the digressions these characters are allowed to take from the main theme and from their individual narratives. In one instance, Gabriel explains that he wants to be a filmmaker, and a short montage sequence follows in which we see many of the curious sights of NYC, none of which have are immediately germane to his story with Danielle, but all of which help to build him up as a more complete and personable image through strictly visual (and generally nonverbal) means. It is this kind of reliance on visuals that pushes Love Etc. beyond that tedious subgenre of documentary, the “talking heads” style, which I imagine this film could have quickly devolved into; but it remains a carefully composed piece which continually foregrounds cinematography and editing, as opposed to relying upon sound as so many “talking heads” do.
Cinematographically, Love Etc. beautifully renders NYC through camerawork that is simultaneously smooth, agile, and assured. Prominent colors – deep reds, oranges, and yellows – figure into most compositions. But editing is the real star stylistic device of this film. Jump cuts abound, and they are tactfully organized to suggest fragmented relationships or fragmented selves. Cut-ins propel the mise-en-scène and give contextual weight to the words spoken, so that the usually flat, uninteresting interviews become visually, rather than aurally, engaging. Some of these cut-ins lack any direct connection to the stories being told, but in that sense they are invaluable in constructing space that is not tied to the straightforward propulsion of the narrative. Likewise, numerous montage sequences bring these stories together in a fashion that supplants narrative in favor of thematic concerns. Graphic matches work in this same sense, except in this case they function primarily as transitions, and they deftly connect different couples in different boroughs at different times.
As mentioned previously, the editing really brings out the mise-en-scène, and several scenes demonstrate how it has been used effectively to avoid the sterile space that often results from focusing on subject interviews. For instance, midway through the film Albert discusses his lifelong marriage to Marion while swimming at a local pool. Only a few shots are dedicated to his musings on death; the rest create a space, as well as underline his somber words, by focusing on shots of children and teenagers swimming nearby. Similarly, other portions of the film make sure to stay away from the interview mastershot and move about the room so that our attention is guided to compare and contrast the verbal with the visual, in a way that too few documentary films dare to do.
A nondiegetic jazz score moves the montage sequences along briskly, as well as underwriting the more nonverbal sections in a way that brings out the aural qualities of NYC. Sound bridges shine, whether used for subversion or support. One scene is particularly notable in this respect; as Scott is serenaded by friends at his baby shower, their song is carried over images of him shopping for baby books and cribs. This scene works because it not only allows us to hear the remainder of the humorous song as performed in front of his party, but it produces a touching contrast with him attempting to “baby proof” his house all alone.
Love Etc. doesn’t pander to our heartstrings like so many other films about love tend to do. If it tugs at them, it does so not simply because the stories themselves are moving, but because their stylistic presentation is so richly cinematic and stylistic. And (gratefully, I might add) this film doesn’t try to define love or pathologize it, but merely to catch five glimpses of it in one city.