Stockholm, My Love follows Swedish singer-songwriter Neneh Cherry as Alva, an academic specialising in architecture suffering from a terrible depression following a traumatic event. Her wanderings around the city are coupled with voice-over monologues in English and Swedish, one addressed to her father, the other to a man called Gunnar, who was involved in the unhappy event. Her thoughts are desperately sad, but frequently her addressee is regaled with information about the buildings she sees and the streets she is walking (evidence of a passion waiting to be reawakened). Later, the monologue halts, and when addressing Gunnar the words appear on screen like short poems.
I would say that Cousins’s previous feature, 2015’s I Am Belfast, had better writing, if only because it could encompass many tones and moods. One moment could induce a giggle; the next a tear. That said, Stockholm, My Love’s writing is still artful, gentle and sensitive. Alva’s voice-over uses frequent questioning and apostrophes, reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s best poetic narration. These rhetorical devices reveal her desperation for answers and that she has not accepted the reality of her life. Through the voice-over Alva reveals her sensibility. When she speaks (quite lyrically) about the architectural principle or appearance of a building, she conveys to the viewer the substance of her melancholy. She details the human thinking behind a building’s construction, never forgetting to mention that such thinking is absent from her post-traumatic life; as though all human ideas are beyond her, as though she is lost and is never to be found again.
The writing is essentially inextricable from the cinematography. Christopher Doyle – the cinematographer for perhaps the most beautiful film of the millennium so far, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) – photographed the film with Cousins, and this is one of its great strengths. Doyle’s images operate on many levels. They create the mood. One of the first things we are told is that: “Stockholm’s great at grey and cold mornings.” We are then given copious visual proof. By the harbour, mist hangs over the water heavily as boats pass half-unseen; an effective visual aid to Alva’s numbness.
There are two categories of shot we should concern ourselves with in this film: those of Alva in the cityscape, and those from Alva’s point of view. The shots watching Alva traverse Stockholm establish rhythm and mood – near the beginning, she walks slowly, often framed by the structures of the misty city; accompanying the contemplative mood. As her mood lifts, she is shown in more open spaces, walking at a quicker pace, with abundant sunlight. Conversely, the POV shots superimpose her perceptions onto ours, and every strange camera operation allows us to observe the idiosyncrasy of her emotions. These two kinds of shot makes us ruminate with Alva, and more importantly, they make us feel with her.
There is one inconsistency in the score. It alternates between the electronic beats of Cherry’s own music (well-suited to the modernity of Stockholm’s architecture) and the sounds of Romantic composer Franz Berwald when buildings of a more classical style grace the screen. However, at one point, Alva begins to sing intra-diegetically. It’s an odd moment that goes against the style of her voice-over and seems generally without purpose.
While Stockholm, My Love is not quite as beautiful or profound as I Am Belfast, it is a delight watching this director make films unapologetically the way he wants to. Cousins, as famous for his work about cinema as for his own films, has consistently demonstrated a great love for the medium. This film affirms that love.