By Jonathon Norcross
Joanna Harcourt-Smith grew up in extreme wealth in France raised by a mother who boasted of sleeping with Mussolini — and her story only gets weirder from there.
In the newest Errol Morris film, “My Psychedelic Love Story,” Joanna comes across as something akin to a high society counter-culture Forrest Gump. In addition to her romantic relationship with Timothy Leary, she had run-ins with The Rolling Stones, Diane Von Furstenberg, Andy Warhol, and Francis Ford Coppola.
She smuggled LSD into Folsom Prison and spent time in the witness protection program. Her whirlwind story, also the subject of her book “Tripping the Bardo with Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story,” makes for a spellbinding and mind-bending documentary, which is currently available for streaming via DOC NYC before it makes its television debut on Showtime.
Like his previous film “American Dharma,” which made several references to “Fog of War,” “My Psychedelic Love Story” also references another Morris project, his Netflix series “Wormwood.” Joanna explains that she wanted Morris to adapt her book into a film in part because “Wormwood,” a paranoid thriller that explores a CIA mind control program dubbed Project MKUltra, reminded her of her time as the romantic partner of LSD guru Timothy Leary. In Joanna’s telling, she controlled men but also felt she was being controlled, perhaps by the federal forces determined to imprison her beau.
Her relationship with Leary feels like a tale of international espionage, albeit with hippie protagonists. Like many of Morris’ films that take their audience on a wild ride, the less you know about Joanna’s tale, the better. Suffice to say it is a wholly unique yarn.
In the absence of footage that depicts the events described by Joanna and in lieu of scripted recreations, Morris finds unique ways to present archival material in “My Psychedelic Love Story.” He has photo collages waving and bending to mimic the visual effects of LSD. He displays photographs across sheets of acid. Newspaper headlines are made to look kaleidoscopic. Tarot cards animate into prophecies of destiny and doom.
In what has become Morris’ signature interview style, we see Joanna shot from seemingly every conceivable angle. At times, the camera feels like it’s inches from her face. Then when the film needs to pause and take a breath, it’s at a distant wide angle. Employing this many camera angles gives the usual “talking head” interview set-up the feeling of being much bigger than it actually is and prevents the film from ever feeling visually stale or repetitive.
Perhaps Morris’ best attribute as a filmmaker is his ability to surprise his audience. He’ll develop certain trademarks, such as the Interrotron or scripted recreations or the use of Philip Glass music, and then add to them or de-emphasize them or even ditch them entirely. Morris rarely feels like he’s repeating himself and watching one of his films is always a rewarding and refreshing experience. “My Psychedelic Love Story” is no exception.
Besides being a frequent and valued contributor to Channel Nonfiction, Mr. Norcross is co-host of The Post Cast Podcast.
This is the 10th year of DOC NYC, a documentary film festival based in New York City. Because of the pandemic, this year the festival is online from Nov. 11-19th.