A feather-light, engaging documentary, Love Etc. charts the evolution of five romantic relationships in New York over the course of a year. Director Jill Andresevic selected a cross section of lovers from three boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens) in various stages of their lives, all affable and all inclined to colorful self-expression.
In interviews shot in their homes, they discuss their pleasures and challenges. In other situations, they’re liable to perform a bit for the camera. Ethan is a single father of two teens, as well as a wiseass who says what he means. Smoking a cigarette outside a neighborhood bar, the 41-year-old carpenter propositions a group of young women who pass him on the sidewalk: “I’d like to buy all three of you ladies a drink!” And when theater director Scott has a baby shower (he’s expecting twins via a surrogate mother), the attendees just happen to be Broadway stars who perform a little ditty of encouragement. The personalized number is a genuine showstopper. Love Etc.‘s breakout stars are Albert and Marion, crooners from Canarsie who have been together for 48 years. He’s devoted to her, and she graciously accepts it.
While the film is focused on the pursuit of romantic love, the strong bonds between the subjects and their families are often the most poignant. Chitra, about to marry Mahendra, has made her parents proud. They immigrated to the United States from India to raise their children, and cry with joy when they reflect on the educational success she has achieved in New York. Ethan’s children, who consider their dad a true friend, conspire to help him find love because they simply want him to be happy.
The subjects of Love Etc. experience ups and downs during the film, but we don’t see anything too ugly or upsetting. Marion is suffering from dementia, but aside from her having trouble remembering a random name, she appears quite lucid throughout. With more than 500 hours of footage, it seems unlikely that none of it captured a difficult moment, so one can’t help wondering whether or why Andresevic chose not to include them.
Another question that comes up has to do with structure. Following five couples is surely an ambitious project, but the 90-minute film is uneven, taking its time introducing us to the couples, then ending somewhat abruptly. Despite these shortcomings, you can’t help rooting that things turn out well for everyone, including the high school seniors Gabriel and Danielle, both in the midst of their first “serious” relationship.
Such sympathy affected the audience at the screening I attended, at the 92Y in New York on 28 July. The film concludes with a coda describing the status of the subjects, and the news about one couple elicited gasps of dismay. While it’s possible that this reaction was motivated in part by the empathic identification that developed between viewers and subjects, it’s also true that audiences have also been trained through years of film and TV watching to expect a positive conclusion to the types of romantic narratives represented in this film, whether documentary or fiction. Though it’s common knowledge that half of American marriages end in divorce — and there is evidence provided in the film to suggest that the couple in question has issues to overcome from the outset — the expectation of “happily ever after” still holds powerful sway.
The screening was followed by a discussion with the filmmakers and a few of their subjects (Albert, Ethan, and Scott). Executive producer Jonathan Tisch, himself a newlywed, described Love Etc. as a “love letter” about and to New York. The colorful street scenes (especially those shot in the neighborhoods of Queens) certainly show the city at its most vibrant and appealing. He said he hopes the documentary will provide singles with a measure of hope about finding love themselves one day. Ah, just what New York singles need — more PR that “love is the answer.”
A truly inspiring sequel to Love Etc. would be a documentary about singles who find fulfillment on their own. Albert couldn’t help piping up about the importance of independence as the panel discussion was coming to a close. One of the secrets to his relationship’s great success, he said, was that he and Marion always pursued their unique interests. “We were together,” he said, “but separate too.”