‘If It Were Love’ — Performance art makes its way to cinema in this beautifully sensual film | LFF Review
The club is a recurring motif in films. It’s a space, dark and suffocating, flooded with people and noise, struck with flashes of coloured lightning. It’s a place where characters go to lose themselves: consumed by drugs and alcohol, they stumble out of their lives and into the arms of sweaty strangers. We watch them, like the voyeurs we are, descend into depths of human destruction.
The club is a powerful motif in art.
In 2019, Gisele Vienne took the club to the stage, creating through dance a visceral and otherworldly recreation of her own experiences in the Berlin clubs. Crowd, which was revered for its transfixing originality and cinematic styling, was nominated for multiple awards including Outstanding Achievement in Dance at the 2020 Olivier Awards. But now Vienne’s production goes beyond the stage, with Patric Chiha documenting the evolution of the piece from rehearsals to performance.
We’re asked to watch If It Were Love like a documentary, an exploration of artists creating their craft. The film effortlessly interweaves moments from the stage show with behind-the-scenes footage, yet we never know where the documentary begins and the acting ends. Yes, we see the stage and we see the dancers performing on it, underneath strobing lights, rolling in dirt. But are they still playing backstage? The film takes us on an exploration of the minds of artists, allowing us to witness them creating a character before our eyes. We watch them talk to their co-workers about their inspirations and motivations, how their characters ended up in this ubiquitous club, their sex life with other dancers, their personal traumas and unfulfilled desires. Where exactly does the play end and the reality begin? What is art and what is real? We don’t know.
If It Were Love is art cinema at its best: it’s an exploration of the beauty that is the creation of art. It allows us to process art and creation through the making of and the deliverance of. The dance segments alone are enough to completely captivate you, as the process of watching and looking at these performers awakens a primal need in you: to touch and be touched, to feel so deeply while feeling nothing at all.
But then we are thrown out of this world so beautifully crafted on stage for the space of creation. We are walked through the imagination process, seeing how artwork comes to life. It allows us to connect with our humanity through an intimate vessel; it all feels so real — but it’s not. It’s actors on a stage, projecting fiction onto us, forcing us to question the nature of documentary and the nature of life itself.
The film blurs the line between art and reality, asking us to reflect on whether our lives are within our control or simply a show overseen by a director. Are we living a vision of reality or simply a pure fantasy?
In a time that has been so threatening to the arts, with politicians and governments declaring it useless, If It Were Love enlightens us to the beauty and transformative experience of art in all forms. Vienne’s original production sought to find beauty within mess, life within chaos. And we need art to remind us of that. Yes, everything about this is pretentious — it’s an art movie after all. But it’s a reminder that the world needs both the grounded realists and the fanciful dreamers. Because without the dreamers, the actors, the dancers, the artists, the filmmakers, life isn’t worth experiencing.