Blurring the lines of fact and fiction, reality and art, and putting genres of romance, comedy and documentary into a cinema verite blender, Florian Habicht's eccentric, whimsical Love Story is a charming mix of calculation, innovation and improvisation.
It's gonzo film-making, with Habicht (Kaikohe Demolition), a German-born New Zealander, as director-actor concocting, intentionally or otherwise, a cinematic confection that is iconoclastic, entertaining and one of the most original rom-coms you're likely to see.
And despite a shoestring budget and breaking an essential element of engagement by continually reminding the audience that he is making a movie, Habicht is ultimately triumphant.
He layers the narrative so that the film's ostensible love story – about a man meeting a woman in New York City and their ensuing romantic relationship – becomes intertwined and often eclipsed by what's happening between himself and Russian actress Masha Yakovenko as they make the movie.
That conceit isn't original. Harold Pinter's screenplay adaptation of John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman did much the same thing. Certainly, there's manipulation behind this double-tiered romantic tale. Habicht the director is making his movie cheaply with only a camcorder – yet there's also an unseen and unmentioned camera person filming him as he does this and interacts with Yakovenko.
Habicht goes even further. His Love Story becomes a valentine to New York City and its people, from whom he seeks advice and suggestions on how his film's "love story" should develop.
A parade of street people punctuates the movie, including locals, cafe patrons, lesbians, belly dancers, a transvestite, a punk, a psychic, and a young woman beggar with a sign saying, "Need tampons and need weed".
These conversations yank moviegoers out of the "love" stories – Habicht even films himself getting them to sign screen release waivers – but also elicits some memorable lines: "Keep your hands to yourself and she'll put her hands on you"; "I usually take it where I find it or leave it where it's at"; and "You never experience true love until you have a child".
Some people believe in lust, not love; a woman on a subway talks about the chemicals in humans that attract people to one another; a woman recommends acting shy, adding that women like to be in control; and there's advice on whether foot massages are sexual, and a fizzy birth control idea.
Habicht has favourites among his interviewees, none more so than his father, whom he Skypes. His father, an acclaimed photographer, reminds him that viewers must not get bored, and suggests using footage of fireworks exploding to represent love-making climaxes – advice used for bathtub sex scenes and cavorting between the sheets, with Habicht using his chest physique to accommodate a cereal breakfast.
At the centre of it all always is Habicht – tall, thin, gangly in pink stovepipe pants, and making his movie with a wide-eyed, goofy charm that can disarm even a surprised, wary woman stockbroker when he suddenly invades her taxi to interview her.
Also working to his advantage is that the subject of his film – blossoming love – is irresistibly appealing to most people, whether they are approached by a stranger on the street or sitting in a cinema watching a strange romantic comedy.
The fetching Yakovenko, as Habicht's muse and fantasy girl, whom he serendipitously meets on a subway while she's carrying a slice of cake, is as lissome as he is lanky, her own double roles overlapping each other.
Besides relying on character involvement, all movies require an intriguing question, most commonly the wonder of how it will all end, to help sustain interest. It's one Habicht poses: will there be a happy ending?
His answer, which features a dwarf doing a Michael Jackson impression, is awkwardly ambiguous but appropriate in a movie that is interactive and as spontaneous as it is scripted: we must use our intuition and imagination to decide what the ending means and what, if anything, is illusion or real.
At one point, Habicht asks his father what kind of success his movie, when completed, might have – and his father agrees that it could go to film festivals (which it has) and "maybe a bit further", adding that although it wouldn't be big, it would be good.
It's arguably a case of father knows best, but also an understatement of Love Story's worth.
- © Fairfax NZ News