Writer/director/star Stephen Keep Mills seems to have a lot on his mind in Love Is Not Love, but the largely abstract movie remains pretty much impenetrable, whatever it’s trying to say about love getting lost in scenes that come off like mannered, self-conscious acting-class exercises, the kind of thing that Bill Hader’s character would struggle with on HBO’s Barry. Mills aims for a deliberately artificial feel, starting with the opening shots of New York City, which are then used as rear-projection backdrops for characters spouting off fussy proclamations about love. It takes quite a while for Love Is Not Love to settle on anything resembling a story or a protagonist, and Mills’ Frank spends the first 15 minutes or so of the movie mostly in the background, literally following silently behind a pair of Irish construction workers as they recount the myth of Tristan and Isolde.
Eventually the movie focuses in on Frank, a married man in his 60s who arrives for an appointment with a woman who seems to be a prostitute, although, like everything in this irritating, obtuse movie, it’s never quite clear. Either way, Reyna (Alejandra Gollas) is not Frank’s wife Paula (Louise Martin), and after what is apparently a mind-blowing sexual encounter (although it takes place entirely offscreen and is referred to only in oblique terms), Frank becomes obsessed with Reyna (whose name, it turns out, is actually Emilia). She seems to fall for him as well, but their relationship remains poorly defined, and the flowery, ostentatiously poetic dialogue of Mills’ script only obscures his themes rather than illuminate them.
Eventually, something possibly sours between Frank and Reyna/Emilia, and he returns to Paula, but the two can only argue in various stylized, symbolic ways, including Paula literally putting Frank on trial, with a judge banging a gavel every time he tries to speak. Every so often, a street performer (Tonya Cornelisse) makes further vague pronouncements about love and about Frank’s predicament, while sifting little plastic balls through a giant hourglass. The makeshift sets are minimally dressed, giving the movie the feel of a community-theater stage production written by a troupe’s pompous artistic director.
Mills, a character actor who was a fixture in small roles on TV in the 1980s and ’90s, makes his feature filmmaking debut here, and he seems to have built up decades of Very Important Observations about love, which he imparts in the most self-indulgent manner possible. The black-and-white cinematography is crisp, although there often isn’t much of interest for cinematographer Steven Fedellin to shoot. The evocation of New York City proves to be largely irrelevant, other than to recall more well-known (and more well-made) meditations on love that use NYC as their backdrop. Frank and Paula appear to live in California, anyway, although expecting anything resembling concrete details from this movie is a foolish endeavor.
Mills’ slam-poetry aesthetic works briefly at the beginning, when he’s jumping quickly through snippets of conversation among anonymous people on the street. But once Frank’s story takes over, the movie becomes tedious and bombastic in equal measure, and creating the semblance of a plot just makes the narrative incoherence that much more frustrating. In the end, Love Is Not Love says nothing at all, its constant stream of florid declarations and stilted monologues conveying only the sense of a narcissistic writer in love with the sound of his own vapid prose.