AFI FEST 2020 REVIEW! Errol Morris is inarguably one of our greatest documentarians. A brief glimpse at his filmography – Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War – reveals a meticulous craftsman, a keen observer of the human condition, whose top preoccupation may be the search for Truth. After all, what is Truth but someone’s version of it? Morris’s My Psychedelic Love Story continues the tradition of exploring Truth’s different facets.
This time, he allows his subject to recount her version of a controversial story and leaves us pondering which of her recollections are real and which are tarnished by a drug-addled past – as well as purposeful embellishments. This prolonged interview may not be on par with Morris’s best films, but it’s refreshing to see the auteur suspending his somber persona and having a blast.
Joanna Harcourt-Smith is Morris’s subject, a psychedelic activist, socialite, and writer from Paris who counts Keith Richards, Diane von Furstenberg, and Andy Warhol as close acquaintances. She also happened to be the partner of Timothy Leary, renowned Harvard psychologist, philosopher, proponent of psychedelic drugs, self-proclaimed reincarnation of occultist Aleister Crowley, and alleged visionary prophet labeled the High Priest of LSD (“the man responsible for America’s LSD crisis”). While on the run with Joanna, Leary was apprehended by the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. When asked by Morris early on if she’s a CIA plant, Joanna replies wryly, “I still wonder to this day.”
When asked by Morris early on if she’s a CIA plant, Joanna replies wryly, ‘I still wonder to this day.’”
Morris – or rather Joanna – traces her adventures with Leary, from the moment they “married,” all f**ked up on cocaine and LSD, in Switzerland, to his arrest on the way out of Afghanistan. Her recollections are studded with acid flashbacks, detours, meanderings, and deviations – in a way, mirroring an acid trip. This can be both endearing and frustrating, as one struggles to grasp hold of the focal story, which includes a potential deception, an international espionage-like escapade, a heated romance, and Timothy becoming an informant for the FBI.
Haunted by a traumatic (albeit privileged) past, Joanna remembers using drugs as a means to exorcise her demons, and Leary – who believed that psychedelics “could cure trauma and PTSD” – was her messiah, her salvation. While things were getting truly heated on an international level, Joanna was having a grand time, wearing disguises, constantly trippin’, crazy in love. She claims to have been too naïve to have known what letters she was delivering from Leary to the FBI. “They used me as an object of entrapment,” she states. Do we believe her?
Besides revealing interviews heard over recordings, Timothy Leary, perhaps purposefully, remains an even more tantalizing enigma than Joanna. When Joanna’s voice fades, it’s his persona that somehow leaves a ghostly trail. That’s not to diminish Joanna’s charm and eloquence – she’s certainly a fascinating figure with an astonishing past. Morris utilizes psychedelic neon colors, bold titles, and a hallucinatory score to emphasize the craziness of her life. He has devilish fun piecing together Joanna’s fractured past. It just feels like, in his search for Truth, he’s lost his way a little this time.
My Psychedelic Love Story screened at the 2020 AFI Fest.
"…Leary, perhaps purposefully, remains an even more tantalizing enigma than Joanna."