The term “unreliable narrator” might have been invented to describe Joanna Harcourt-Smith, the subject of Errol Morris’ latest documentary revolving around a single figure. She’s a former paramour of psychologist and LSD-guru Timothy Leary who was involved with him during some of his most tumultuous years, including when he turned informant to secure an early release from prison. Based on her memoir, the documentary features the undeniably colorful bohemian spinning a series of wild tales featuring generous doses of those counterculture mainstays: sex, drugs and rock and roll. My Psychedelic Love Story is receiving its world premiere at the AFI Fest before airing later this fall on Showtime.
Harcourt-Smith recounts the story of her privileged upbringing in Paris as the daughter of a financier father and a sexually promiscuous mother who once bragged about sleeping with Mussolini. She describes how she was molested as a child by her parents’ chauffeur, noting that she felt a sensation that was “not altogether disagreeable.” Her mother, when told about the incident, commented, “Good chauffeurs are hard to find.”
Pretty far out.
Harcourt-Smith met Leary in 1972, introduced by a rich suitor and arms dealer who was supporting Leary after he had escaped a California prison and fled to Switzerland. It was apparently love at first sight for both of them, as she describes being captivated by Leary and thrilled to find “a man hip enough for me.” After leaving Switzerland, the couple traveled to a variety of international locales, including Lebanon and Afghanistan, before Leary was arrested in Kabul and extradited to the United States, where he was sent to California’s Folsom Prison for charges relating to his drug use and prison escape. While there, Harcourt-Smith served as his spokesperson to the media. She also smuggled acid to him during her visits so they could both get high and when that wasn’t possible, she would write him letters with stamps coated in acid.
She also cooperated with authorities to help Leary, including setting up his lawyer on drug charges at the request of the San Francisco district attorney. Such actions, among other things, led to her being described as a “CIA sex provocateur” by counterculture figures. After Leary was released, the couple was relocated to Santa Fe by the Witness Protection Program (Leary demurred at being offered Salt Lake City). Harcourt-Smith tearfully relates how the relationship ended as a result of a terrible fight, after which Leary abruptly left her. She never understood exactly why.
“If you want, we could at some point get into ‘strange stuff,’” Harcourt-Smith says to Morris, using air quotes. The offer seems incongruous, since there’s strange stuff throughout the entirety of the discussion featuring a cast of characters including the Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol and Frances Ford Coppola, among many others. Her rambling stories, some of which feel authentic and some of which come across like elaborate yarns, are disjointed enough to make the film feel longer than it is.
Using a variety of camera angles rather than just his trademark technique of having his subjects speak directly to the camera, Morris infuses the proceedings with an appropriately ’60s-era visual feel, including psychedelic-style graphics, tinted imagery, stock footage and pop culture references obliquely commenting on the material, including clips from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, Greta Garbo’s Mata Hari, Marlene Dietrich’s The Blue Angel, the film noir classic Double Indemnity and even his own 2017 Netflix miniseries Wormwood. Leary is seen in numerous archival clips, as well as snippets of audio interviews.
Even in her 70s, Harcourt-Smith (who died earlier this month) still exudes the playful seductiveness and sensuality that enticed Leary and, judging by her account, an apparently endless parade of lovers as well. Although not exactly possessing the gravitas of such previous Errol Morris subjects as Robert S. McNamara, Stephen Hawking or even Steve Bannon, she’s a compellingly eccentric figure in her own right. It seems only a matter of time before her outlandish tale receives the full Hollywood treatment.
Venue: AFI Fest 2020 (Special Presentations: Closing Night)
Production companies: Fourth Floor Productions, Moxie Pictures
Director/executive producer: Errol Morris
Producers: Robert Fernandez, Steven Hathaway
Editor: Steven Hathaway
Composer: Paul Leonard-Morgan