What Is Love: Saravejo Film Review

Love and loneliness in contemporary Middle Europe.

Ruth Mader's Austrian drama explores different forms of love with chilly honesty.

SARAJEVO -- Nine years have elapsed since the young Austrian writer-director Ruth Mader earned critical plaudits for her debut feature, the stark immigration drama Struggle. Fresh from showing in competition at Sarajevo Film Festival, Mader’s belated follow-up project experiments even further with the same hybrid style, an artful blend of fiction and documentary.

Yoking together five unrelated character studies on the same loose theme, What Is Love has some of the understated bleakness which has become signature of Austrian cinema. But it is also a frustratingly opaque and cerebral work, unwilling or unable to engage on an emotional level. Festivals and specialist screenings seem to offer the film’s most likely future prospects, although it could just as easily play in an art gallery.

Mader favours long, static, formally composed shots that border on still-life portraits at times. In the film’s opening section, a young woman sits alone in her tasteful home, applies make-up in the mirror, attends a dinner party, nurses her sister’s baby, and dances joylessly in a night club. She has a vague air of lovesick longing, but the film offers neither explanation nor resolution. By contrast, the next chapter features a married suburban office worker who returns home to a frosty confrontation with his wife about the state of their relationship, a quietly riveting piece of passive-aggressive soap opera which unfolds in real time and painstaking detail. A young Catholic priest in an ailing rural parish epitomises a different kind of love, though clearly with its own burden of solitude and self-sacrifice. Then we meet a middle-aged factory worker with a sullen husband and rebellious teenage son, her repetitive routine mirroring that of the earlier woman, no doubt deliberately. And finally a bourgeois couple with a comically matter-of-fact approach to keeping their marriage alive with a multiple-choice bargaining system.

What Is Love is less about romance than the drudgery and compromise that hold relationships together. Mader shoots the robotic domestic routines and petty family squabbles of suburbia with all the forensic distance of an academic anthropologist. And while she does not seek out freak-show grotesques like her fellow Austrian quasi-documentary maker Ulrich Seidl, there is a subtle undercurrent of bone-dry satire and social critique at work here. The quiet desperation behind the neatly trimmed gardens. Hell is other people, especially the people you love.

Sadly, it would take a film-making genius to make the unremarkable lives of disappointed people into a dramatically engaging whole. The chief appeal of Mader’s elegant anthology lies in its chilly composure and knowingly blank tone, as well as in spotting where reality ends and scripted dialogue begins. But such rarefied aesthetic pleasures are not sufficient to sustain 80 minutes of deliberately open-ended, disconnected, low-wattage docu-drama. What Is Love contains a few choice moments of dark comedy and sharp-eyed social observation, but it ultimately feels like a sketchbook for a grander project, a half-empty canvas with just the edges painted in.

Venue: Sarajevo Film Festival
Production company: KGP Kranzelbinder Gabriele Production GmbH
Cast: Saskia Maca, Helene Bubna, Michael Bubna, Thomas Rath, Walter Scalet, Eva Suchy
Director: Ruth Mader
Writer: Ruth Mader
Producer: Gabriele Kranzelbinder
Cinematographer: Jörg Gönner
Editor: Nina Mossböck
Sales company: KGP Kranzelbinder Gabriele Production GmbH
Rating TBC, 80 minutes