This documentary by Kim Longinotto explores depictions of love on film during the 20th Century, mining the British Film Institute’s archives in order to detail the way in which attitudes, legal positions and more have changed across society during that period. Like Penny Woolcock’s entertaining coastal study From The Sea To The Land Beyond, which made similar use of professional and amateur archive footage to illustrate social change in 20th Century Britain, Longinotto’s film was commissioned for Sheffield DocFest and was recently shown on the BBC as part of this year’s Storyville season.
Woolcock’s film featured a stirring soundtrack by the band British Sea Power and, continuing the trend, Longinotto’s documentary is scored by the Sheffield balladeer Richard Hawley, fittingly a songwriter who has kept one eye on the past (be it the influence of 1950s crooners on his early solo work and image or the more recent tendency towards psychedelia). The film is semi-linear, with thematic segments generally edited around Hawley’s songs, and the loose structure slowly guides us through the century in question: Love Is All begins with a clip from the 1899 silent comedy The Kiss In The Tunnel and finishes with scenes taken from Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane.
In between there’s a dizzying and diverse array of romantic imagery, stitched together by Longinotto and editor Ollie Huddleston in a way that often generates the necessary level of joie de vivre, while also being intermittently tailored towards the more downbeat issues of pain and longing that are never too far away. There’s plenty of footage of men and women dancing, stealing kisses, enjoying clinches and sharing meaningful glances to begin with, but as the film progresses Longinotto uses the assembled material to explore a number of related issues: class divides, the male gaze, multiculturalism and interracial relationships, lesbian and gay relationships, an increase in both liberalism and tolerance, and much more. There’s a strong emphasis on female empowerment throughout, as well as a triumphant recognition of the British film industry’s role in both shaping and reflecting attitudes toward homosexuality.
While Love Is All includes longer selections from relevant works, such as Ewald André Dupont’s Piccadilly (a 1929 vehicle for the first Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong), Lloyd Reckord’s groundbreaking homoerotic mid-60s short Dream A40 and Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette, inevitably it is the older footage – be it old-fashioned courtship rituals or women practicing jujitsu – that intrigues the most, presumably due to its relative distance from the modern day. Yet, despite all the developments in British society shown throughout the film, Longinotto recognises that there’s also an ongoing consistency: as the title suggests, ‘love is all’, and – put simply – as a basic concept love does not change over time.
Some of the recurring imagery used to illustrate this equilibrium is a little obvious (trains and tunnels being a predictable favourite of fnarr-fnarring filmmakers throughout the decades, it would seem), but this is isn’t a criticism of the filmmaker, who is merely reflecting trends and ideas subscribed to by others. Given the focus on taboo-busting the documentary is notably coy about the subject of sex, though who knows whether that’s Longinotto’s choice or not. I’m speculating mischievously here, but perhaps it was a condition of the commission; the film was first screened at the stately home Chatsworth House, after all, and although attitudes may have changed I imagine it isn’t the kind of venue that would wish to be associated with scenes of rampant, sweaty rutting (unless it’s the local stags). (The setting didn’t stop Hawley from dropping a c-bomb in the middle of a Q&A session, mind.)
Love Is All is well worth seeing; the source material is stitched together inventively, and much of it is haunting, beautiful and often very moving (I’m a sucker for elderly couples, m’lud, and the mere sight of them regularly brings me to tears). The broad range of the selected footage, which presumably took a long time to discover and finalise, should also be applauded; it’s no surprise that Longinotto, perhaps better known for her documentaries about female oppression or discrimination, has worked with Huddleston again on the newly-released Dreamcatcher (which, incidentally, was turned down by the BBC as it didn’t want to fund ‘another documentary about prostitutes’). Many of the clips chosen and edited here are given fresh context by Hawley’s songs, and even a new lease of life in some cases, while the musician’s work is also illuminated in return.
Directed by: Kim Longinotto
Running Time: 74 minutes