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The Eyes of Orson Welles review - a fascinating but fawning love letter to the great director

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Verdict: Worth a watch to get a look at Orson Welles’ art, but too self-indulgent to have the insight it should.

To find something a new perspective from which to view a figure as obvious as Orson Welles is impressive, so props to writer/director Mark Cousins for choosing such enthralling subject matter for his latest film essay. Implicitly accepting that eyes are indeed windows to the soul, Cousins finds an unconventional route into Welles’ subconscious – via the great director’s paintings and drawings.

Granted access to a treasure-trove of sketches and canvases by Orson’s eldest daughter, Beatrice, Cousins surveys a diverse selection of works, from abstract landscapes to scrawled caricatures. The art itself is amazing, and The Eyes of Orson Welles is worth a watch just to get a good look at it. But really the film’s success rests on Cousins’ insights concerning Welles the man; and in this respect its accomplishments are mixed.

Cousins approaches Welles from multiple angles over six chapters, splicing in clips from his films and other archive footage. He finds space for analysis of his work across all mediums (film of course, but also radio and theatre) and even broaches his politics. A particularly fascinating scene shows an aggravated Welles explain that he changed Kafka’s pessimistic ending in his adaptation of The Trial ‘because of the holocaust’ – he couldn’t bear to see his protagonist so easily submit.

The Eyes of Orson Welles presents itself as self-reflexive documentary filmmaking à la Agnès Varda; or perhaps, more accurately, as Mark Cousins’ cinematic adaptation of his brilliantly experimental, introspective Sight & Sound column, in which he casts a critical, often socially critical, eye on the film industry. Cousins disregards the predicable formal qualities that stifle most ‘mainstream’ documentaries, sometimes shooting on handheld camcorders and formulating his narration in second person address directed as Welles.

That last detail poses a potential problem for viewers: for a significant amount of the film’s runtime this is Cousins’ (literal) love letter to Orson Welles, in which analysis breaks down into fawning adoration just as it’s getting insightful. As the film goes on, Cousins’ role as scholar increasingly resembles that of fanboy, and the chapter that has an imagined version of Welles (voiced by Jack Klaff) replying to Cousins feels more like personal wish fulfilment than anything else.

One particularly frustrating result of this is Cousins’ unwillingness to interrogate the less appealing aspects of Welles’ character. ‘Admit it Orson: your tastes were regal’, Cousin accuses after recounting a public display of arrogance, but the thread is immediately dropped. And what, in the wake of #MeToo, do we make of the offhand description of Welles as an ‘omnivorous lover’?

Maybe these are unfair expectations for a filmmaker who literally has Welles’ signature tattooed on his body. It’s worth saying again that the art is exquisite, and I’m sure some viewers will be taken by Cousins’ often endearing enthusiasm. But come the film’s final segment – which essentially amounts to a ten minute ‘thank you’ – you might wish Cousins had held back on the self-indulgence and gone a little deeper.

The Eyes of Orson Welles is out now, distributed by Dogwoof.

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