Director: Mark Cousins
Cast: Orson Welles, Mark Cousins, Beatrice Welles
Watch The Eyes of Orson Welles online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Sky Store / Google Play
Read our interview with director Mark Cousins.
Written and directed by noted cinephile Mark Cousins, this fascinating documentary pulls off the seemingly impossible trick of re-examining the life and work of Orson Welles in a way that feels entirely original. Presented as a literal love letter to Welles, it’s a profoundly personal piece of work that’s packed with remarkable insight.
Gifted access to a remarkable treasure trove of Orson’s hitherto unseen sketches, drawings and paintings, Cousins pores over the material with an infectious passion. Throughout the film, he uses Orson’s artwork to extrapolate and speculate on various aspects of his life and career, from his theatre work to his films (both finished and unfinished), his political leanings and his love life.
As befitting the epistolary format, Cousins frames his narration in the second person, addressing Orson directly (“We’ll come to your love life later, Orson – bet you can’t wait for that”), his own distinctive accent and singsong tone adding a swooning, almost seductive quality that feels extremely intimate. Within the narration, he brings Welles up to speed on the events he’s missed since his death in 1985 (up to and including the current occupant of the White House), with particular focus on what Welles might have made of the internet.
Though not primarily known for his artwork, Welles was a prolific sketcher, doodler and painter, who drew from an early age and continued throughout his life. He apparently drew everything, from the surrounding landscape, to fragments of dreams to caricatured faces, as well as designs and concept art for whatever project he was working on. An enormous amount of that material is presented here and Cousins’ extraordinary achievement lies in the thoughtful and considered way he connects it to Welles’ body of work. Cousins’ intimate familiarity with Welles’ films means he’s constantly spotting fascinating details – for example, design sketches for a Julius Caesar project were later reproduced in the scenery for Welles’ The Trial. The editing in that regard is particularly impressive (as are the clip choices), and it’s hard not to come away with a deep respect for Cousins’ painstaking approach to research.
At a certain point, Cousins intones, “You thought with lines and shapes, your films are sketchbooks, calligraphy.” That observation proves particularly illuminating and serves as the key to the film, while Cousins makes a strong case for Welles to be regarded as a graphic artist in his own right.
Throughout the film, Cousins provides visual context and grounding, travelling to each of the key places in Welles’ life, from his birthplace in Kenosha, Wisconsin to Ireland, Spain, Morocco, Paris and Arizona. He also includes contributions from Welles’ daughter, Beatrice, who made the archive available for the film.
It’s fair to say that Cousins occasionally gets a little over-indulgent. The love letter narration is fanciful enough – and works perfectly, in context – but Cousins also allows himself an imagined reply from Orson (voiced unconvincingly by Jack Klaff) and it’s hard to repress the urge to cringe a little. Similarly, he gives the various chapters of Orson’s life headings like Pawn, King and Jester, which seem mostly tenuous, other than when he’s examining Orson’s obsessions with power and royalty.
That said, Cousins’ indulgences are a small price to pay for what is ultimately a fascinating, original and superbly made documentary that, as the title indicates, allows the audience to see the world through Orson’s eyes. A must-see for cinephiles everywhere.
Photo: Jane Bown / Topfoto