‘Acts of Love’: Film Review | Hot Docs 2021

In their genre-bending documentary, Isidore Bethel and Francis Leplay explore love, intimacy and the slow unraveling of a relationship.

Contrary to what society has often led us to believe, the phrase “I love you” does not always clarify what two individuals in a relationship mean to each other. Although those three words can express a sincere sentiment, their ubiquity also makes them ripe for misuse. Part of that, I think, has to do with vague definitions: There is no universal understanding of love, and as a result, “I love you,” once uttered, can hang in the air, its meaning up for grabs.

In Acts of Love, the directors Isidore Bethel and Francis Leplay try to ground love, or tether it to a distinct set of emotions or actions. Premiering at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, this exciting, genre-bending film explores the slow unraveling of a relationship between Bethel and his older boyfriend. The doc opens with a sequence of iPhone photos of varying degrees of quality — an aerial shot of a neighborhood block, a harsh crop of the back of a man’s head at what appears to be a gallery. These images are accompanied by a chillingly neutral voiceover by Bethel, recounting how he met his lover and describing their tenuous relationship. “Now it’s summer, you’re traveling and so am I,” he says. “You made no promises about seeing me again, but I can’t stop thinking about you.”

Post-break-up (if you can call it that), Bethel flies from Mexico City, where he met his lover, to Chicago. The ambiguous nature of their relationship inspires him to make a film — an undefined project driven by the men he invites to audition through his dating app profile. “The guys who came in have agreed to act in a film with me, they don’t know what it will be about and neither do I,” Bethel says addressing his ex. “Maybe I’m making it in spite of you or maybe it’s for you.” The title card drops and the film begins. 

Acts of Love is a directionless project, or so Bethel repeatedly says during his chats with these strangers. But in reality, the film follows a pretty clear narrative arc. It poses tough questions, yes, but those feel like natural attempts to understand intimacy in a relationship where boundaries are never made clear. Bethel chats with 900 men and meets 12 in person before deciding on the four who will be in the film. Their conversations start in Bethel’s studio and cover a lot of ground: They discuss how Grindr has changed their views on dating and courtship, their waning libidos, their sexual preferences and subcultures and their ideas about art. The interactions mirror the qualities of a first date: flirty, choppy, a little awkward and then, at times, intensely clear and erotic.

After these studio meetings, the doc moves in a more experimental direction. The “actors” are given scripts, inspired by those early encounters, and asked to perform scenes with Bethel. It’s during these keenly vulnerable and sometimes unusual moments that Acts of Love stands out in its exploration of attraction, desire, sex and intimacy. We witness these men figure out their relationship to Bethel in real time. The film teases the line between reality and fiction, forcing viewers to not only pay attention (“Was that interaction scripted or not?”) but also to acknowledge the performance inherent in courtship. When it comes to dating and intimacy, aren’t we all pretending just a little bit?

To balance out these heady questions and keep the project from falling into pretension, Bethel and Leplay include clips of Bethel talking to his mother over the phone. Bethel’s mother — caring, but cautious — presses her son, asking him to consider the ethics of his film and what he hopes to gain from the project. “Think long and hard about what you’re doing,” she says at one point, “and what the consequences are, and if you will be happy with them.” She introduces questions about living the private details of his life publicly, potentially crossing boundaries with these men and wondering out loud how much of the enterprise is simply fueled by narcissism.

Acts of Love’s earnest effort to respond to these queries makes it fascinating to watch. Parts of the film feel like a desperate plea to get the person Bethel loves to show they care; other parts wrestle with the pain involved in moving on. At one point, Bethel’s ex-boyfriend comes back in the picture, and this attempt at reconciliation understandably throws Bethel off. The film thrives on moments like these, when it can use the messiness of relating to another person to more precisely define love: Is it a noun, something concrete that can be acted upon? Or a verb, shifting and evolving with time? The project doesn’t push a specific answer, but proves that it’s worth taking risks — in art and in romance — to figure that out.

Full credits

Distributor: Outplay Films
Production companies: Hutong Productions, Sin Sitio Cine
Directors: Isidore Bethel, Francis Leplay
Writers: Isidore Bethel, Francis Leplay
Producers: Isidore Bethel, Francis Leplay, Jamie Gonçalves, Lucie Rego, Pauline Tran Van Lieu
Director of photography: Ryan Saunders
Editor: Francis Leplay
Sound recording: Alex Sherman
Sound editing: Margot Testemale
Sound mix: Fanny Weinzaepflen
Color grading: Aurore Toulon
Still photography: Katherine Finkelstein

71 minutes