Impetus is nearly impossible to categorize – not because it defies genre, rather it tries to occupy too many of them at once. Fiction, biography, autobiography, documentary and metatextuality all factor heavily into this self-indulgent portrait of creativity and loneliness.
Beginning at first as a straight documentary by filmmaker Jennifer Alleyn, Impetus is about making a fiction film. This film-with-a-film is about a man who’s house-sitting a lizard in New York City. Clearly, there’s greater nuance and insight than simply watching a gecko all day, but that’s the general diving-in point to this facet of the movie. Alleyn then injects herself into the story through examining her own losses in life and finds similar loss in several subjects of her documentary.
As she’s shooting the film, she realizes that she has gotten the actor wrong. The person is supposed to be a stand-in for herself, but she was too afraid to make it a woman. Facing herself would be too real for her, but when confronted with her choices, she must do the right thing for the sake of her film. When that part is recast by her friend (Pascale Bussières), the emotional weight of the movie begins to shift in front of the camera. As Alleyn blends the footage of Bussières coming to set and interacting with the crew with the footage of her film-within-a-film, the lines between fiction and nonfiction get fuzzier.
This all feels a little disingenuous, as it’s clear that Alleyn never had any intention of making that movie about babysitting the lizard. That film wasn’t necessarily riveting, so I won’t shed any tears over not seeing its completion, but it’s a reminder that we’re just here to watch the filmmaker process her chosen topics on her own, with little regard for the outcome. Impetus is all about the digestion of the thoughts leading up to a film, and not about the film itself.
All of this post-structuralist storytelling, and disintegration of formal film conventions, not to mention the examination of gender and the projection of “the artist” within the art, could have been enough to carry Impetus were it not for the fact that Alleyn seems a bit too precious about her footage. Watching her watch people on the subway, while her voiceover explains how cool it is to have this fleeting relationship with strangers, is too basic for a film capable of much greater depth, and the clichéd approach to New York as a transformative landscape screams “film student.” Re-approaching well-established tropes in documentaries is not completely off limits, but doing so in a way that we have seen dozens of times already, with no new insight, is just plain dull. And while the camera clearly loves Bussières, the endless shots of her looking at things around her do little to enhance either her world of the world of Alleyn.
Impetus has plenty of ideas and some beautiful visuals, but it needs a tighter thesis and a stronger edit to make its own argument accessible.