There’s a pretty clear quasi-joke that comes through in Alain de Botton’s first novel On Love, but it’s delivered better in the film loosely based on that work (and Essays in Love), My Last Five Girlfriends. This is perhaps because it is actually delivered in the film, but that’s to split hairs really.
de Botton’s novel, which was dealt with rather harshly by a good many critics upon its initial release, came to popularity in rather backwards fashion. With the quite serious success of How Proust Can Change Your Life, and The Consolations of Philosophy (titles to books I might have penned myself frankly), fans began exploring his earlier efforts, and On Love found new legs.
There’s a deliciously unfun, uninteresting motif at play in the film, brought to you in a curious, almost abstract delivery which somehow keeps you guessing, and keeps you bothering to guess. At the heart of the film’s effort is the idea that you probably don’t have the slightest interest in wrangling with the old, “Do you like these shoes?” conversation, but you’d probably better find some level of interest if you don’t want experimental evidence to the question, “Can a dress shoe really break a window?”
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Building a film around what is essentially the tedium of relationships, and furthermore making the fairly bold, possibly mind-shattering statement that these are perhaps the only interesting and important bits there are, might easily be the sort of game that has audiences asking for their money back almost instantly.
You’d better do something rather different and intriguing if you want to keep people entertained enough to get to the punchline, and such an attempt is what we have here. Rather than such by now cutesy ideas as breaking the fourth wall, writer/director Julian Kemp decides to go all out and rethink the idea of there being any walls at all. Though perhaps not always to brilliant result, the film’s structure (which is to very nearly not have one) pulls you in rather wonderfully, as elements of scenery occasionally break away mid-sentence to reveal a unique visual/narrative dichotomy. Where the general theory of narration is, more or less, to describe or clarify what we see, here we get the opposite. Figure that out.
We follow along with Duncan as he relives these relationships, but there is a sense in which we never leave the Amusement Park in his mind. He’s giving us these “rides” through his own lens, and wondering aloud at us about them all the while. By the way, the offensive nature of referring to women as “rides” is lessened appropriately by the fact that there are literal rides in the film which represent his girlfriends. Actually, I suppose I’m not saying that this lessening is actual, so much as pointing out its theoretical existence as contained in the film itself.
Ultimately, Duncan struggles heroically with his own effort to understand just what the heck love is. More to the point, what went wrong with these relationships. Relationships that, at some point at least, seemed to be going rather swimmingly. Whether it be via some odd quirk, like why he can’t bring himself to leave his toothbrush overnight, or a more general confusion, like why he didn’t realize she wasn’t really that interested (or he wasn’t), there’s a lot of ground to cover in every relationship. How are we possibly meant to understand it all?
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In the end, after rather a humorous adventure that is solidly entertaining, he throws up his hands and turns to the curious selection of available data history provides. All the great poets and thinkers… didn’t they all have a go at explaining love? Can’t we find the poems and novels in which they’ve all taken their shots at love and its tortuous effects? And, did any of them find the answer?
Yes, actually, many of them did, only then they stopped bitching about it.
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