Mark Cousins’ new film is a City Symphony, he says, citing many of the classic early examples of this particularly silent genre, including Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Rien que les heures, but also later, more complicated urban hymns such as Woody Allen’s Manhattan, or Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. I’ve added the director’s credits in the later works because those films move away from the collective City Symphony format, offering a distinctive filmmaker’s own view of a place, adding in a story those focuses on individuals instead of the modern, urban mass. So does this one.
Cousins’ Stockholm My Love, like those films, breaks some of the ‘rules’ of the City Symphony: there’s a single subjective perspective, and a fictional narrative. Our guide to the Swedish capital is Alwa, an architect and academic, pacing around her home city while she comes to terms with a traumatic event that took place on these streets a year before. Alwa is played by Neneh Cherry, a starry figure, who nevertheless offers a restrained, often quite still performance. It doesn’t distract us from our view of the city that a famous singer is standing in front of it. This is not her film, so much as it is Cousins’.
There is sound too, although this film was largely shot silent, with Cousins coaching Cherry live through her performance like Griffith and Pickford, sometimes, he says, even holding her hand during the close-ups. At the Q&A after the screening I saw at BFI Southbank, he quoted Fellini, saying that he made a visual film, and then added a radio play on top of it.
In the soundtrack there is music, three sets of it. New, gorgeous, tracks from Cherry, with lyrics by Cousins; folk songs written by Benny Andersson (from Abba); and Swedish classical music by Franz Berwald. Most notably, though, there is a voice-over. Alwa describes the city around her, talking directly to her father (who may have passed away), to a man called Gunnar who is linked to the traumatic event a year ago, and to the city itself. Cherry speaks naturally, sympathetically, and quietly but full of compassion. However, this narration belongs almost wholly to Cousins. He has such a distinct written and spoken style (you’ll remember his epic cinema documentary The Story of Film) that it is impossible not to recognise him in the rhythm of these words. Writing about Stockholm My Love, I almost feel that I am echoing his rises and falls. Cousins-speak has seeped into my brain.
The narration is both knowledgeable (Alwa is an architect and understands the history of the city’s urban planning all too well) and speculative (Gunnar may have visited this church, if he were religious, and he lived nearby). Sometimes she tells us the history and relevance of what we are seeing, and sometimes she is lost for words (“the truck dumps its blue thing”).
Alwa’s Stockholm is not the tourists’ version. Stockholm My Love has no interest in showing us the whole city, or the best of it, as many Symphonies choose to. Suburban churches, roadworks, a cinema, a skatepark, all feature here. As do close-ups of details that could belong anywhere: a daisy, a dandelion clock, a snail. It’s Cousins’s Stockholm, he says – some of the shots in this film, were taken years ago, on his travels. Star-cinematographer Christopher Doyle joined the project to take some of the more beautiful shots, but lots here is hand-held, a little fuzzy, very idiosyncratic. Alwa’s consciousness is shared by both Cousins and Cherry, of course, and these are the places and objects in the city that matter to her. Often the frame will be cut in half, vertically by a tree branch, a roadmarking, or Cherry’s body. The film wants to tell us that cities don’t always look the same, to two people, or on two different days.
Cities evolve, and so do genres. Stockholm My Love, I think, belongs to the tradition of the City Symphony as much any film from the silent era. Don’t forget that A propos de Nice is shamelessly subjective, or Rain focuses on one quirky detail of a city rather than the municipal whole, for example. There are many ways in which Cousins embraces the format: the film takes place over a distinct period: a day and a half. It couldn’t run from dawn to dusk, he explained at the Q&A, because Alwa is looking for happiness, and “the coming of the light”. The film is structured in thirds, with the last section mostly forgoing the voiceover for floating captions, elegant intertitles, the three strands of music are intertwined, creating a layered, symphonic track. Alwa may not melt into the crowd, but she finds ways to identify with strangers: a skinny dipper, or a teenager dressed in green. In the film’s joyous final third, there is even a phantom ride or two: a rollercoaster, a boat trip, a sense of moving happily, freely about the urban space. Cousins told Cherry she wouldn’t have to learn any lines for this semi-silent film, but she would be only allowed one smile. After the emotional tension of the first hour, the audience grins along with Alwa when the light rushes in.
There’s a tendency to deny a film’s commonality with silent cinema because, as here, the sound design and the music are so important, so well done. I think that’s a mistake. I wouldn’t strip Stockholm My Love of its sound for anything, but I do appreciate how Cousins’s silent camera, how his immersion in an older style of film-making, has created a poignant, provocative new film. Stockholm My Love is a singular and proud City Symphony. After what has been a maddening, melancholic week for London, watching this cine-poem about trauma, recovery, and city-community building, was intensely therapeutic. I hope you enjoy it too.
- Stockholm My Love is out in cinemas now and available to stream on BFIPlayer. It will be available on dual-format DVD and Blu-ray on 16 June 2017.
- Symphonies of steel and stone: silent cinema and the city