Director: Mark Cousins
Cast: Neneh Cherry
Watch Stockholm My Love online in the UK: BFI Player+ / BFI Player
Mark Cousins has been a remarkably prolific documentary director over the past decade. While an exploration of cinema history was initially the main focus of his works – such as the epic 15-part The Story of Film – Cousins has slowly started to go beyond the confines of the silver screen in his essay films. While director Sergei Eisenstein loomed large in What Is This Film Called Love?, the film was a comfortingly chaotic musing on identity, culture and time. I Am Belfast was a paean to the people of Northern Ireland and a city that had survived generations of conflict. Now, Cousins makes his fiction debut with Stockholm My Love, the story of a woman coming to terms with a traumatic incident. Yet, while cinema is no longer a central preoccupation of Cousins’ work, the ghosts of celluloid still haunt every moment.
Alva Achebe (Neneh Cherry, in her acting debut) wanders around the city of Stockholm engaging in a mental discourse with both her father and the city around her. It becomes apparent that she is still suffering the effects of a traumatic incident some months before and is using the city to escape. As she runs away, and tries to make herself disappear in the history of the buildings and the streets, she is brought back to her past and discovers that the escape she was looking for was impossible. But Alva soon begins to discover that the city offers hope of renewal and a chance to reconcile with one’s demons.
Cities tend to be somewhat beatified by cinema. Rome’s Trevi Fountain was a place of baptism for Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita. The black-and-white photography of Manhattan emphasises the grace and endeavour in the city’s architecture, as buildings stand tall amongst human neuroses. But in Stockholm My Love, the beauty is found in the resolutely ordinary. A shopping precinct. A graffiti strewn underpass. All of these supposedly drab and mundane places that play host to a multitude of life-changing events. They become a repository of experience and emotion. It is no accident that Alva is an architect – a person whose job it is to design the places that will become an essential part of people’s lives.
Cousins utilises the same documentary aesthetic from his previous films, capturing off-kilter moments here and there (a father picking up his infant daughter’s lost hat, a bug crawling in the grass). These meandering snippets are both comforting yet slightly bittersweet – Alva is attempting to come to terms with a life-changing event, yet the world still continues on around her, unconcerned about her individual feelings.
But as much as a city can subsume a person, it can also offer the hope of redemption and freedom. As Alva visits a cinema (a palace of escape) and a fairground, one cannot help but be reminded of a similar journey undertook by young Antoine in Truffat’s The 400 Blows. Both find their chance to leave their lives behind in the vicarious thrills that the city has to offer.
Cherry – who herself is partly Swedish and was born in Stockholm – makes for an ethereal presence in the film. Melancholic yet strong, her spirit binds the film together as she tries to make sense of the world and city around her. There is also some splendid cinematography from Wong Kar-wai’s frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle, as well as canny use of music featuring songs from Cherry and ABBA’s own Benny Andersson.
Stockholm My Love shines a light not only on a specific city but on human relationships to the places in which we live. Playing with genre and cinema history, it’s a tender and evocative work that is both haunting and beautiful.
Stockholm My Love is available on BFI Player+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription – with a 30-day free trial.