There’s something irresistible about the romantic self-obsessive. If asked, most people would probably not rank their love lives as the most interesting facet of their existence, and yet art that focuses on nothing but romance endures. It’s why we indulge in tabloid gossip and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and it’s at least part of why Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World has had mainstream success as well as being a critical darling. We just can’t look away from a romantic car crash. The filmmaker Isidore Bethel opens his experimental film (co-directed with Francis Leplay) with a blunt confession — he had always wondered at which birthday his older boyfriend would first consider leaving him for a younger lover. Bethel details the ways he contorted to fit his boyfriend’s ideals, knowing that a split was inevitable. But when that split comes, he is left inconsolable, and looking to creativity for solace. That heartbreak coalesces into Acts of Love, a messy, raw piece of autofiction that casts men found on Grindr as versions of Bethel’s lover, interspersed with Bethel’s interviews with his “cast,” a series of stills narrated by Bethel, and phone conversations about the film between Bethel and his mother.
As an interviewer, Bethel navigates an unsettled space between straightforward and something altogether more abstract. His interviewees vary in what they expect from the project, be it an artistic collaboration or a hook-up or just a conversation, an approach that leads Bethel to inevitably murky places. Bethel draws a subtle but convincing connection between the casting process and dating apps, but casting scenes from his own life with men he actually takes as lovers is what sets Acts of Love apart from other works of autofiction. There’s a very real unpredictability to Acts of Love, because by Bethel’s own admission, the project is formless and the emotions still raw, and as each develops, the other must adapt. The project is full of blindspots (many of which are pointed out to Bethel on-camera, but never really tackled) such as the ethical concerns of using real people in such an intimate film and whether anyone will actually care about the intricacies of his romantic and sexual life, but it’s actually precisely that shortsightedness that feels so vital and new about Acts of Love. The combination of witnessing Bethel’s emotional turbulence in real-time and his camera’s shameless voyeurism is undoubtedly a self-involved one, granted, but it’s hard not to be intoxicated by a work so disarmingly vulnerable.
Bethel’s subjects are equally intriguing — one, so open and unapologetic in his desire that it’s both magnetic and repulsive to watch, and another, who flits between honesty and evasiveness, are of particular interest, though watching Bethel’s attempts to fit them into a particular mold as his ex-lover did to him is perhaps less interesting than their testimonies of their experiences as gay men. At a particularly fraught moment in his creative process, Bethel tries to justify his work to his wary mother, suggesting that the artistic image-making process can be a betrayal, but that it can also be a gift. Exhausted and genuinely puzzled, and having called the project narcissistic only a moment ago, she asks him, “A gift to whom?” That myopic tension at the heart of Acts of Love, of whether a project like this is entirely masturbatory or whether there is some legitimate collective value to it, is equally frustrating and enthralling. Ultimately, Bethel’s mother isn’t wrong — the project is a study in a frustratingly relatable kind of self-indulgent introspection, an experiment into just how much any audience will actually care about a portrait of an artist entirely divorced from anything but his obsession with his own romantic and sexual life. But however limited the scope of that portrait is, Bethel refuses to hold anything back, and the result is, if nothing else, an authentic, magnetic representation of one man’s wound.
Published as part of Prismatic Ground 2022 — Dispatch 2.