Director Isidore Bethel is on the rebound. He’s a young, attractive, and scruffy actor/filmmaker getting over a recent break-up with an older man. Bethel explains in voiceover that the May-December romance was his first time hunting silver foxes. As he ruminates about their relationship, revisits old photos, and reflects upon the sage advice his boyfriend/daddy-figure gave him, he wonders about the ways in which people grow through intimate counters. He decides to test this inquiry by tapping into, and ultimately subverting, the contemporary phenomenon of app-based dating. Bethel proposes to make a film about his return to the dating scene and updates his profile with an invitation for interested men to “swipe right” if they’re keen to join his journey. He promises that each audition comes with a prize, which could be sexual or strictly platonic depending on the sparks that fly.
Unsurprisingly, many men in Chicago accept his potentially indecent proposal. Using a verité approach, Acts of Love observes as Bethel interviews various men about their love lives and relationships. Some men struggle with the art of face-to-face communication, while others don’t miss a beat, savouring the moment of forging an interpersonal connection when most encounters begin with sparse text messages and crude emojis. Some men bare themselves to Bethel—both literally and figuratively—while others are more guarded. A former soldier, for example, is overly keen to “drop trou,” as the kids say, and is pleasuring himself before Bethel by the interview’s end. Surprisingly, this casting call proves one of the most rewarding as Bethel begins a casual courtship with the desperately lonely man.
Some of the interviews aren’t quite as prone to happy endings. A few of the men admit that they’re just looking for fun within the rules of their current open relationships. Others struggle with intimacy, admitting that factors of body size and race guide their own acts of love while searching in the city. Bethel generally finds that one’s mature outlook on life, love, and relationships isn’t necessarily determined by one’s age. Through the diversity of men who appear before Bethel’s camera, Acts of Love illustrates how the same premise for a relationship yields an equally varied range of outcomes.
Acts of Love develops a rhythmic pattern as Bethel takes the next steps with a few of the men who audition. Verité-style observations of their encounters witness some relationships moving faster and more smoothly than others do. The former soldier begins nearly every conversation with “let’s get naked,” while another man, seemingly a good choice for the artist, invites Bethel back to his photography studio. He turns the tables on the director and invites him to model nude. One date with a much older man tests the limits of open relationships, while another asks if one can find love in the romp room of a swingers’ club. Re-enactments and dramatized interpretations follow these overtly non-fiction moments with varying levels of discomfort as the “actors” become self-conscious of their actions.
Bethel marks each act through a phone call with his mother. She doesn’t approve of the project and finds it both self-indulgent and inauthentic. She observes that her son is an actor, and that performing for the camera, and for these men, may not be the most productive road to love.
Some audiences might agree with Mother Bethel. Filming one’s dating game and sex life could be perceived as self-indulgent. Other viewers might disagree and find themselves moved by Bethel’s openness and vulnerability, as well as that of his participants. Just as Taylor Swift pens a future hit to make sense of a past relationship, Acts of Love conveys an artistic engagement with love and heartbreak. Bethel’s footage both candid and re-enacted invites provocative observations on the dynamics of power and control that dating creates. Each relationship grapples with undercurrents of authority and some verge upon transactional. The documented dates leave Bethel and the viewer with nuggets about the seeds that sow healthy relationships.
As Bethel finds clarity in his search for love and fulfilment, he returns to the images of his former flame. Thousands of still images fly across the screen as the director unburdens himself and celebrates love lost by focusing on the seemingly inconsequential moments captured in photographs. They add up to the revelatory shots he tried to create through his project. If one obsessively analyses the present, rather than savouring it and relishing these small moments for what they are, these everyday acts of love can pass one by. Acts of Love is a thoughtful study of love and heartbreak, but ultimately a celebration of savouring the encounters that define us throughout our journeys.
Acts of Love premieres at Hot Docs 2021.