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Review: With My Psychedelic Love Story, Errol Morris Cuts His Subject Down to Size

One of the tensions driving the film is a question of its subject’s self-awareness.

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Chuck Bowen

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My Psychedelic Love Story
Photo: Nafis Azad/Showtime

Speaking to documentarian Errol Morris in My Psychedelic Love Story, 74-year-old Johanna Harcourt-Smith, with sharp eyes and a sensual Cheshire cat grin, looks positively giddy about the dirty secrets she’s about to spill. As one of Timothy Leary’s lovers while the LSD evangelist was hopscotching around the world to elude Richard Nixon’s opportunistic war on drugs, Harcourt-Smith fraternized with arms dealers, filmmakers, artists, and sui generis celebrities like Andy Warhol throughout the 1970s. Of course, for a privileged Swiss boarding school girl who’d always had a command over men, who frequently vacationed throughout Europe, and who lived for a spell with the Rolling Stones as a teenager, such adventures appear to have felt inevitable to her.

As is his wont, Morris takes Harcourt-Smith on her own terms, seemingly allowing her to talk without much guidance. Morris’s questions and responses are largely unheard, and as Harcourt-Smith drones on, the film succumbs to “and this happened” syndrome. An irony emerges: Harcourt-Smith’s story is so rich in incident—with escapes and sexual interludes and druggy reveries and changes in exotic locations seemingly detailed every few seconds—that it grows tedious. Part of this is the result of Harcourt-Smith’s poor sense of storytelling. For instance, she alludes to a pregnancy she had as a teenager when she heard the Moody Blues’s “Legend of a Mind” and felt the pull to seek out Leary. We’re naturally led to wonder what happened to this baby, which isn’t revealed until an hour later, at which point we’ve been so narcotized by Harcourt-Smith’s rambling as to have forgotten that there was a baby.

In her way, Harcourt-Smith captures what the counterculture is often said to have been like: a barely coherent tapestry of hedonism meant as an effort to discover utopia amid authoritarianism at home and abroad alike, and as such dictated by wild alternating swings of euphoria and paranoia. There’s a sense in My Psychedelic Love Story, as there was in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, of a wealth of anecdotes being used to obscure the circular hypocrisy and futility of rebellion. (In this case, a little rich girl can afford to play at revolution, and Harcourt-Smith is never more obnoxious than when talking of her excitement over going to prison.) Leary certainly comes across in this film as a flim-flam man, a hip L. Ron Hubbard who used nonsense about destinies and Tarot readings and Aleister Crowley to glorify stereotypical tastes in drugs, young women, and especially fame. In this context, it’s no wonder he turned to the C.I.A. when the American government finally snagged him and Harcourt-Smith in Kabul.

One of the tensions driving My Psychedelic Love Story is a question of Harcourt-Smith’s self-awareness. She speaks of naïveté in terms of attempting to spring Leary from jail (which includes barely sensical stories of drug deals) and of working with the government herself, yet this globetrotting debutante seems anything but naïve. However, Harcourt-Smith also appears to authentically believe that she was the womanizing Leary’s true love, unless that’s the pose she’s chosen to cement her own legend. It’s a shame that Morris didn’t push his subject harder on some of these points, though a purpose to this indulgence is eventually revealed.

Morris understandably seems to see Harcourt-Smith as an opportunist. When she talks of appearing on a Swiss game show (another long story) as a child, Morris cuts to footage of a girl on TV with text informing us that this isn’t Harcourt-Smith. Such visual jokes stimulate Morris’s imagination more than his interviews with his subject, as the film is another of his’s hallucinatory slipstreams, a la Wormwood, with dozens of clips from classic films, TV shows, and newspaper headlines that foster a heady sense of bottomless, reverberating conspiracy. And time after time, Morris cuts Leary and Harcourt-Smith down to size with found footage.

Though Harcourt-Smith claims to suspect that she was an unconscious C.I.A. mole, Morris unearths recordings that suggest she knew she was working for the government, especially when she’s trying to set up a lawyer for a drug sting. Meanwhile, footage of Leary casually makes a fool out of him, such as when he’s claiming that the Earth’s gravity is an illegal form of repression. Such counterpoint to Harcourt-Smith’s self-mythology is necessary—My Psychedelic Love Story would be unwatchable without it—but also a bit cruel, suggesting that Harcourt-Smith, who passed away in October, is being set up for a joke she wasn’t in on. In Morris’s best films, such as The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, there’s a sense that the director is truly simpatico with his subjects. In My Psychedelic Love Story, though, Morris lets a fading never-quite-legend blather her way into a trap.

Cast: Johanna Harcourt-Smith Network: Showtime

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