Review: What Is Love?

Ryan Engley Reviews the 2018 Short by Student Filmmaker Elle Rinaldi

Elle Rinaldi is a first year student at New York University studying Film & Television Production. She has been writing, directing, and editing her own amateur short films since she was in middle school. Over the years, she has grown to love experimental modes, finding films that “break the rules” (like Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project) to truly inspire her. Her most recent piece, Deus ex Machina, reflects this passion through enigmatic themes and seemingly senseless structure. In this article, Ryan Engley reviews an earlier short, Elle’s 2017 film, What Is Love?

In Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” four friends sit around a kitchen table drinking gin and discussing what love is. The conversation begins with two universal statements: Love is an Absolute, pure and eternal, and Love is Particular, dependent upon individual situations. Both definitions fall apart over the course of the story. Love simply cannot be one thing since there are so many different kinds of love, but, by the same token, if everything counts as love then what is love? What makes that feeling unique or special?

Couple pictured in What Is Love?

If Carver’s story teaches us anything, it’s that love should be difficult to talk about it. A definition should not come easily. We should stumble and struggle to get the words right. We should know it is one thing among many possibilities, but we should also know that that one thing can take many possible shapes. Elle Rinaldi, in her 2017 short film What Is Love? captures the complexity of talking about something as universally felt—and as particularly experienced— as love. Rinaldi stages her investigation by asking interview subjects a series of elegant, direct, and ultimately confounding questions: what does love smell like? What does love feel like? What does love sound like? What does love taste like? The subjects of her documentary are audibly struck by the novelty of these questions. They search for the right words because they know that they know the answer. It’s just…hard to describe.

Filmmaker Elle Rinaldi

By breaking love down to what we might call its component parts, Rinaldi tasks her film with building a whole picture of what love “looks like” through these pieces. Rinaldi reinforces this thematic tie through her film’s visual composition. We do not watch her interview her subjects. We see fragments of her interviewees noses, their hands, their ears, their mouths as they contemplate the simple yet evocative questions posed to them. In fact, it is not until one of her subjects declares confidently that “love is a couple, 80 years old or 90 years old, holding hands,” like his grandparents, that we see a whole person (an elderly couple on a park bench, in fact, possibly the interviewees grandparents). The film, in starting with love’s parts and fragmented photographs builds to a whole picture and a fuller notion of what love is.

As a viewer, the notion, as one of Rinaldi’s subjects put it, that love “sounds like Cinema Paradiso,” made me reflect on watching that film for the first time with my grandfather. And that, I think, is what makes Elle Rinaldi’s What Is Love? so strong: it both advances its own argument about love—that a full conception of love needs to be built from pieces—and, by being composed through still shots and fragments of photographs, gives space for viewers to fill in their own answers to the questions that drive the film. In this way, Rinaldi manages to highlight love’s universal features and its particular sensations.

Elle’s film can be viewed at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=I1g2ijKR0NY

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