Hot Docs 2021 Review: Isidore Bethel Flirts with Danger in “Acts of Love”

A director provocatively mixes filmmaking approaches to examine the gap between love and sex.

“You have to make make work that’s tense to you,” one of the strangers that the filmmaker Isidore Bethel meets in “Acts of Love” tells him, being an artist himself. After making chitchat about a leather convention for BDSM enthusiasts where his attention seems to drift – the kind of random, highly sexualized conversation that can be expected from placing an ad implying there could be sex in exchange for a 30-minute interview for his film – Bethel receives the kind of affirmation that he’s onto something with his latest project, with the open question of whether he’s on the road to self-actualization or self-destruction and if he should be encouraged in that pursuit becoming a main point of intrigue.

There’s an expectation that you become as fearless as Bethel is in “Acts of Love,” submitting yourself to one cringe-inducing encounter after another as he processes the fallout from the filmmaker answering an ad of his own on a dating app, locating an older man in Mexico City who, in spite of never showing up on camera, it becomes clear had different expectations for their relationship than he did. “Acts of Love” takes the form of a breakup letter as still photos from their fleeting time together, accompanied by Bethel’s recollections, frame the filmmaker’s flight to Chicago where he sifts through interview prospects to make a film in which he’ll create fictional scenes around what he’s heard, involving the people who inspired them. What Bethel is attempting to get at with the fictional recreations never quite coalesces – then again, that’s what’s actually exciting about “Acts of Love” is highlighting the elusiveness of how connections are made since the pretense of a film appears no different than how one tailors the presentation of themselves as they explore taking on a relationship.

If this sounds heady, Bethel, with co-director Francis Leplay, wisely undercuts it with phone conversations the filmmaker has with his mother, and besides offering comic relief — his mother is skeptical of what he’s up to, to say the least — watching Bethel try to explain his seemingly quixotic undertaking reveals he doesn’t even fully understand his reasons for pursuing it. But still, like those who voluntarily appear in the film to share their most explicit sexual exploits in hopes of finding a spark, the reasons behind the impulse matter far less than the impulse itself to continue to seek out a connection no matter what pain it’s incurred in the past. As “Acts of Love” wears on and it becomes obvious real intimacy is tougher to come by than sex and the crude talk that accompanies it, the film feels as if it’s capturing raw emotions more than manufacturing them, with a self-consciousness that’s particularly impressive when Bethel is both the film’s driving creative force and its central subject. When Bethel’s mom is confused by his description of the project as he films scenes with strangers, telling him, “[That sounds like] just a series of encounters without meaning,” his reply, “Well, that sounds like love” can seem about as honest as it gets for those who haven’t found their great romance.

“Acts of Love” will be available to stream through Hot Docs, geoblocked to Canada, from April 29th through May 9th.