She Is Love: a self-indulgent, undirected ramble

Rather than capturing the electric potential of well-rehearsed actors in the throes of impassioned improvisation, this jumpy, poorly prepared, shoddily executed film leaves its performers hopelessly adrift.

3 February 2023

By Hannah McGill

Sam Riley and Haley Bennett as Idris and Patricia in She Is Love (2022)
Sight and Sound

“Still playing the classics?” remarks Patricia (Haley Bennett), upon finding her ex-husband Idris (Sam Riley) plying his old DJing trade on domesticated decks. “It’s a remix of a remix of a remix,” Idris demurs. If that line indicates something about the life Idris has been living without her – muddled up, inauthentic, at a remove from his true self? – it also gestures at the mash-up of tropes and techniques that characterises this production. Multiple aspects of She Is Love are straight from the Richard Curtis playbook: against a backdrop of extreme but casual affluence, a plummy Englishman confronts long-neglected emotional responsibilities at the behest of a more spontaneous American woman. The comforts associated with Curtis’s brand of feelgood romantic comedy, however, have been stripped away here. The camera has the Dogme 95 shakes; jump cuts and non-sequiturs abound; characters are unpleasantly rather than endearingly maladjusted; and rambling, improvised conversations have replaced a script.

Married in their twenties, when he was a superstar DJ/musician and she an aspiring novelist, Idris and Patricia have since become estranged. Now a literary agent based in New York, she shows up unexpectedly at the Cornish hotel where he is living with his actress girlfriend Louise (Marisa Abela). The exes promptly shut themselves in a room to drink, cry and drag up the past. This all seems a bit rough on Louise, unless we follow the film’s encouragement to regard her as hopelessly unsophisticated – a limitation conveyed by her obsessive rehearsal of lines for an audition. “Maybe,” she muses at one point, “the less you rehearse it, the better it gets?”

In the midst of a film that places its artistic faith in spontaneity, we are presumably meant to welcome this breakthrough. But if the conversation between Patricia and Idris that occupies the bulk of the film reveals one thing, it’s that there’s a lot to be said for working out in advance what kind of people your characters are and what they know about each other. Actors making stuff up as they go along doesn’t feel like unmediated intimacy: it feels like an acting exercise. Observing Riley and Bennett try to decide in the moment how to manage a mistake over how old his character is meant to be is uncomfortably compelling, but we’re tense for them as actors, not as the characters they’re playing. Idris and Patricia would know his age; it’s Sam and Haley who don’t. The eventual revelation of what went wrong in this relationship, meanwhile, uncovers some strikingly conservative values under all the experimental clothing.

She Is Love is in UK cinemas now.

Other things to explore