Often laughed off as nothing more than an affliction of adolescence, lovesickness becomes the topic of a sensitive and compelling documentary film. Christian Frei dives into the frenzied nights of the newly rejected. Nights full of pain and tears, yet also wakefulness and creativity. Anthropologist Helen Fisher researches the astounding and profound processes that are unfolding in the brain of the lovesick. Has nature overdone it? The film explores the difficult path out of self-destructive obsessive behavior, toward a new self. And it wonders about the unwavering desire – despite it all – for love.
Love – A Journey Between Heaven and Hell
After War Photographer, TheGiant Buddhas and Space Tourists, you are now documenting a journey into the inner world of broken hearts. How did you come to this topic?
For a long time, I used to think of love as something that was a given. A secondary priority after career and profession. But a few years ago, turmoil in my private life brought me to a point that made the dimension and the power of love immediately and powerfully clear. During that same period, I came across a little article in the journal “Bild der Wissenschaft” (“Image of Science”) about Helen Fisher’s research on the lovelorn. And I thought: If it’s possible to put people in the actual condition of heartbreak into an MRI scanner… to look at what this grief does inside the brain… then it might also be possible to capture this in a documentary. Thus the idea for the film was born.
What’s makes heartbreak so interesting?
Heartbreak is one of the strongest emotions we know. Even being in love isn’t pure “walking on air”. It’s a strange mixture of euphoria and agony. Another person suddenly becomes incredibly important and precious to you. There’s an invisible force at play here. It opens up to a new universe! A feeling like being on drugs. One moment you feel like in you’re in seventh heaven and the next, you fall into abysmal despair the second he or she doesn’t answer back or when the feelings aren’t fully reciprocated. Even in this euphoria of love, agony is built right in! The happiness can turn to hell. A human being cannot feel any more lost or wretched than this.
And this isn’t something that just happens to teenagers!
Exactly. Without the phenomenon of love, how can you explain human cultural history at all? And yet…why did nature invent love? For the purposes of reproduction and evolution, sexuality is enough. What is the purpose of a system that consumes so much energy and in its irrationality can even turn homicidal and dangerous?
Why is it that when we are heartbroken we only love that much more? Why is it so hard to accept rejection? Why does heartbreak paralyse us so?
In the brain of a person in a state of acute heartbreak, the same regions are activated as are those during the state of experiencing the greatest love. This explains the deep desire, this longing, the yearning. It is indeed an addiction. People in love are addicted – and that’s a wonderful feeling. But the longing but can become even stronger when you are left, rejected, abandoned. And that’s when you are truly in hell. It’s just horrible.
How did you find people in this hellish condition who were willing to make themselves available for a documentary film?
We posted flyers in gyms, bars and places where university students hung out and worked extensively with social media and the Internet. You could see it in big black letters everywhere…
“Have you been rejected in love and can’t let go?”
Yes. This sentence got about. Take Alley Scott for instance, one of the three lovelorn in the film. On the third night after she got dumped, she went out to dinner with a friend who then told her about my film. She went home and in the middle of the night writes me an email and I called her right way. The first few seconds that I ever saw this woman on Skype are also in the film!
Did all three protagonists make it into the film just like that?
No. We had a significant number of participants. On our dedicated website “Lovelorn in New York” they could keep a separation diary, a dialogue with themselves. We called it a “logbook of feelings”. Just getting down everything that came to them. Writing was really helpful for them. And for my part, I learned a lot about the dynamics of heartbreak.
Were these extensive separation diaries?
Oh yes! Protagonist Rosey La Rouge, for example, wrote hundreds of pages. Over months. I always read all her entries with interest. Rosey is a burlesque dancer… an exciting and exotic world. And then she described how she had fallen madly in love at the annual Mermaid Parade on Coney Island—with the event’s Guest of Honour: King Neptune himself! And how they kissed in front of the shark tank at the New York Aquarium.
At that moment, there was nothing to lead you to suspect heartbreak was in the offing…
No. But in the days after the Mermaid Parade, King Neptune never even contacted her. And Rosey could not write this night off as a harmless flirtation, just be happy about it and let it go. No. In him she saw the Man of her Life and she spiralled into a massive, serious heartache.
It’s the same energy, just polarized differently?
Absolutely. Helen Fisher’s research confirms this. At root, every heaven has its hell. I was able to see this dynamic directly with Rosey: A mermaid caught King Neptune’s eye and he kissed her. That’s it. For him, that’s all it meant. For her, this kiss changed her life: she fell madly in love. And it took her more than six months to get over this unhappy and one-sided love.
And in her separation diary she described this process of re-finding herself.
I wanted to work with people who were also wondering about this crazy state somehow, who could and wished to articulate it in their own words. The separation diary entries gave me a deep knowledge about their everyday lives, their worries and friends, about their degree of loneliness and their living arrangements, occupations and so on. I learned a great deal directly, without asking. For instance, Michael, the third protagonist. I learned from his diary that he doesn’t have many friends. But his cello teacher is an important person for him – and he loves music. And that led directly to a scene that is very important in the film!
How important is your cameraman Peter Indergand?
He’s immensely important. I’ve worked with him on all my feature films. He’s my “partner in crime”, my eyes. He has an extremely high emotional intelligence, coupled with the highest technical and craftsmanlike precision. That’s something that can’t overestimated. And thanks to this long collaboration we’re also a “well-oiled” team.
What did he say when you presented him with this idea for the first time?
He was surprised that there’d never been any documentary films about heartbreak before! Terra incognita. Both of us really love a challenge. The easy road isn’t for us.
So you set yourself a real technical challenge and built a special mirror for the shots in the New York subway.
We wanted to show the intensity of this loneliness in New York. And we wanted to show it where New York is crowded and hectic and the people are the least alone: on the subway. This is the city’s central nerve cord, where everyone is extremely close physically and yet entirely out of contact from each other.
“It is lonely when you’re among people, too,” [“On peut être seul aussi chez les hommes”], as Saint-Exupéry put it?
That was the idea. To shoot this, we focussed on the human gaze in a months-long experimental phase. How does one solitary person see other solitary people? We worked with silver Christmas balls and even mirrors. While experimenting, we realised that there are two contradictory optical laws: the point of focus is entirely different. Therefore, we combined a ball and a straight mirror surface and, with complex research, calculated the transitions. The result is a spherical mirror that was ground in an ultra-precision optics company in Germany.
And why New York?
Because New York is the singles capital, because New York is an ideal laboratory for me. The more extraverted culture, relative to Europe, actually accommodates the film’s topic. This cannot be underestimated. It takes a certain openness to the many facets of life, a willingness to reflect this. New York is the most international city in the world! And every culture has its romantic heartbreak.
Looking back: was this a hard film for you to make?
“Sleepless” is by far the hardest film I’ve ever done. It was a real challenge in terms of storytelling and dramaturgy. All these raw emotions! Not easy to handle these on film. But heartbreak is, however, not only terrible and perilous and life-threatening. In many cases, it also releases an incredible energy and creativity; it has something cathartic about it. Of the great works of art in human history… how many were created in this feverish state?
If I close my eyes I remember how he smells… That drug… I just want a hit. Just one fix of that smell. Alley Scott I Rejected four days ago…
When he grabbed my hand I could feel my uterus going «Yes, I’m gonna have your babies. I wanna have your babies.» Rosey La Rouge.I Fell in love at the Mermaid Parade
Love is one of the most powerful brain systems ever created. Helen Fisher I Anthropologist
The romantic fantasy world in my brain. It’s probably unfortunate that I live there most of the time. Rosey La Rouge I Fell in love at the Mermaid Parade
It’s quite a remarkable human being who can stay away from somebody who’s just dumped them. Helen Fisher I Anthropologist
Why am I passing by her house almost every night? Sometimes I even park on her street. Why do I do this? Michael Hariton I Rejected two weeks ago…
What in the world did we do before Facebook? I look at his profile probably twice a day. In the first week it was a million times a day. I mean how else can you stalk your lover all the time? Rosey La Rouge I Fell in love at the Mermaid Parade
When you get rejected in love you still continue to love this person. In fact you love them even harder! Helen Fisher I Anthropologist
I could see a future with him and now I can’t see anything. Alley Scott I Rejected four days ago
Throughout history, mankind has loved love and been terrified of love. What is this thing called love? Helen Fisher I Anthropologist
I wonder why I don’t seriously consider the easy exit. I have a life to rebuild whatever the fuck that means. Michael Hariton I Rejected two weeks ago…
Nobody gets out of love alive. Unless you don’t play the game at all! Nobody gets out of love alive. Helen Fisher I Anthropologist