LoveTrue is the latest documentary from American-Israeli filmmaker Alma Har’el, whose debut feature Bombay Beach won a documentary prize at Tribeca in 2011. Like Bombay Beach, LoveTrue is a triptych. It tells the story of three people whose lives have been forever altered by the complexity of romantic entanglements. First, we meet Will, who is still hurting after finding out that his partner cheated on him with his friend, and that his son is not actually biologically his own. Then we meet Blake, a young woman who works as a stripper and who is in love with her boyfriend who suffers from a disabling musculoskeletal condition. Finally, there’s Angel, who dearly loves her father, Abraham, even though he cheated on her estranged mother repeatedly.
The film’s opening sequence is mesmerising; fragmented and dreamlike, it is fuelled by Flying Lotus’ haunting soundtrack. Will runs down a dirt road towards us, then he’s swinging off a tree, then he’s smoking a cigarette. He makes brief eye contact with the viewer then glances away. The intimacy is palpable and Har’el’s evocative cinematography is styled like a music video – unsurprisingly, given that her early filmmaking career was defined by the much-lauded music videos she made with Zach Condon of Beirut.1 We skip to Blake, backlit by the gaudy fluorescence of the strip club where she works and lives, and then to Abraham, walking through a tunnel, flanked by his loyal children. A voiceover sounds above the soundtrack – a young boy reciting Corinthians 13:1, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal.” LoveTrue is not a religious film, but it is a spiritual one. When the film’s title appears, we see the words TrueLove before it rearranges itself to LoveTrue. Rather than celebrate the beauty of love, LoveTrue wades through love’s dark underbelly: the pain of broken hearts.
More interestingly, LoveTrue is suffused with tropes of performance art.2 Will and Blake are each confronted by actors playing them at different times in their lives. The idea is explicitly self-referential, since the actors wear white shirts that read ‘Younger Will’ and ‘Older Blake’ respectively. Later, Abraham re-enacts the scene of his divorce with a woman who is introduced as an actor playing his wife. In this respect, LoveTrue is conceptually ambitious, defying and questioning the limits of documentary. Here, we see formal elements of documentary, fiction and performance art seamlessly woven together. The characters are real and speak directly to the camera about their personal experience. And yet, instead of answering the questions of some off-screen ‘fly-on-the-wall’ interviewer, they muse organically as though writing in a journal. It is an effective technique, since it allows the viewer to forget that LoveTrue is actually a documentary. The experiences of the protagonists are never investigated fully, because as soon as Har’el begins to probe, she pulls back and moves along. Rather, they are touched upon, reflected on and lit up – the shadows of quotidian experience projected upon a rippling sensation of mythic transcendence.
In a 2011 interview in Hammer to Nail, Har’el speaks about her intentions behind Bombay Beach. She says, “This film can only show glimpses into some of the larger issues one can pick out from these people’s lives… This is the human experience of life and that’s what I wanted to illustrate more than anything… Even though the dream is broken, you can still see the people.” It’s a salient quote, because her artistic vision for LoveTrue seems much the same. It is the contradictions inherent in loving someone that Har’el focuses on and spends eighty minutes teasing out. Blake’s motivations for stripping, for example, are teased apart with sensitivity and psychological insight. But there are other aspects of her life that we are never privy to. The portraits Har’el paints of her protagonists are deliberately incomplete – it is a film about the human experience first, and about the particular individuals second.
For the most part, LoveTrue is compelling, although certain elements stick out for being too kitsch. Lit up in vignettes, the childhood flashbacks teeter from the sentimental to the lame. Additionally, the tropes of performance art are never deployed in a way that enriches the film – they are gimmicks instead of conceptual revelations. In this sense, LoveTrue is not entirely convincing as an avant-garde genre experiment. That said, it is a captivating and enjoyable film. Not only is Har’el’s cinematography stunning (her landscape sequences in particular are a joy to watch), but the entire film is suffused with a disarming intimacy. When it ends, it is as if waking from a dream.