'The Eyes of Orson Welles' Review: Imaginary Meaning

Mark Cousins ('The Story of Film: An Odyssey') studies the sketches and paintings of Orson Welles in order to better understand a man who has become near-mythic.

Rendezvous With Orson Welles. En janvier 1950, dans une chambre d'h?tel, portrait de l'acteur et r?alisateur Orson WELLES allong? sur un lit. (Photo by Walter Carone/Paris Match via Getty Images)
Janus Films

In making a documentary about a revered and immensely covered filmmaker, Mark Cousins decided to strike a new path and create a new vision for what a documentary about a filmmaker can be. Using drawings, paintings, and charcoal sketches created by the hand of Orson Welles, Cousins dives deep into the imagination, mental process, and politics of the monolithic artist. This may sound like ripe territory for a fruitful and eye-opening documentary, but how Cousins handles it is less than revelatory. It is just another blip on the well-documented radar of Welles in both life and death.

Split up into five chapters, The Eyes of Orson Welles seeks to use Welles’ fine art to help fill in the gaps of the man that he projected himself to be. His fine art was minimalist, sketches were almost abstract and faces were always nebulous, but his work in film was usually bombastic and extreme — overly maximalist, even. This is well known, as Welles’ art has been studied by scholars and critics alike for years and years, always in search of new nuggets of information and insight into the man that was Orson Welles.

Cousins attempts this and he sometimes exceeds in doing so, but usually, his close reads of Welles’ art come off as spoken-word art criticism that lacks the depth to read into the man behind the art itself. A lack of depth hangs over the whole film, and this makes the nearly two-hour runtime drag on. There are detours from the art, the moments with daughter Beatrice Welles being a highlight, and it is in these fleeting moments of humanity that the film finds some life and meaning. But the core thesis of the film, though defined, is never clearly followed through. And as each chapter passes, The Eyes of Orson Welles seems to stray further and further from its core purpose. It never becomes purposeless, but it never finds a clear point, either.

The fine art is what takes center stage here as there is very little of Cousins himself on screen; he is mainly felt through his poetic, letter-like narration. And it is in this narration where The Eyes of Orson Welles completely loses its way. Cousins narrates as if he is talking to Welles, as if they are old and close friends, and his voice takes an almost musical tone as it waxes on and on. This is meant to make the viewer feel closer to both documentarian and subject, but instead, it makes one feel distanced from the entire film. In execution, it reads as pompous, obsessive, and just bizarre. Through the narration, little insight is ever given and, instead, one gets the sneaking suspicion that Cousins, while making this film, may have been just as obsessed with himself as he was and is with the art of Orson Welles.

In the end, The Eyes of Orson Welles is a documentary rife with high highs and low lows — one could almost imagine Welles critiquing it in his own F for Fake. The greatest and most insightful moments in the doc come not from the core point of the film — Welles’ art — but through the interview with Beatrice. Yet, her segment in the film is all too short, which is a colossal shame. When the art is the main focus, Cousins’ bizarre, off-the-cuff narration does its part in immolating the gravitas and rich importance that could come with close reading the art of Orson Welles.

The Eyes of Orson Welles is a would-be brilliant idea that, through Cousins’ style of filmmaking, comes off as just another quick and jaunty surface-level look at Welles, an artist whose fine art deserves much better.

(Student/Freelance Writer)

Cole Henry is a media theory and philosophy student at Georgia State University, as well as a freelance writer and editor. He is quite interested in every aspect of documentary cinema, and can usually be found reading, writing, running, adding items to his Criterion Collection shopping cart, and eating tacos.