Meanwhile, mindful of Graham Greene’s dictum that the lives of artists are the most difficult of subjects, my thoughts turn to some of my favorite films that have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to dramatize the lives and works of famous painters. I am particularly fond of the Alexander Korda-Charles Laughton Rembrandt (1936), with its vivid dramatization of the controversy attending the unveiling of “The Night Watch” and, best of all, Laughton’s moving soliloquy on the virtues of his beloved Saskia.
Artemisia (1997), Agnes Merlet’s recreation of a scandalous episode in the life and works of the early 16th century artist Artimesia Gentileschi (Valentina Cervi), is a stunning meditation on the lamentable status of women in this patriarchal world—as well as a convincing recreation of the details and processes of contemporary fresco painting.
Albert Lewin’s The Moon and Sixpence (1942), is a respectable adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel about a fictionalized Paul Gauguin (George Sanders), and if nothing else, it pulls no punches in conveying the boorish, unrelenting self-centered aspects of this particular genius. And there is Martin Provost’s magnificent Seraphine (2008), about Seraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), an illiterate, middle-aged housekeeper whose paintings propel her to unexpected fame, while her descent into madness leads to her demise in a lunatic asylum. Here, the blazing images of flowers, fruits, and trees, transcend her stark, grubby surroundings and lifestyle.
Not everybody shares my abiding interest in biopics of artists. For example, years ago, back in during an interview in 1991 with the late Roger Ebert, I broached the subject. Now, Roger knew a thing or two about painters and painting, was an amateur collector of British watercolors, and even wrote about it in A Perfect London Walk (1985). Hence, I was eager for his opinion. “Well, the problem is,” he said, “movies like this are almost always based on potted Freudianism, where two or three childhood, or adolescent, episodes are trotted out to explain the artist’s work. I think great art is kind of inexplicable. What the movies do is cater to kind of a vulgar impulse in all of us to know or to want to understand how an artist is great and why. And so if we can find out that his mother didn’t love him or he was abandoned by a cruel girlfriend or he didn’t perform very well in the Army or something, then we can nod and say, ‘Oh, that’s why he was so good!’ Nobody would be satisfied, I think, with an artist’s biography that told the truth, which is that apart from any human attributes of this person, he simply happened to be able to do what he did as well as he did.”
Yes, that sort of tin-can psychology all too frequently mars biopics of every description. Yet, Ebert went on to admit that two films he had just seen, Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo (1990) and Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991), had succeeded in conveying not so much a biographical but a dramatic, even artistic truth—the action of the creative process itself.
The best thing about the Altman, he explained, was that it did not attempt a psychological diagnosis. “We see Van Gogh [Tim Roth] at work, not because he wanted to but because he had to. There are no explanations. It explains nothing but feels everything.” Similarly, the Rivette, Ebert continued, a four-hour film about a fictitious painter (Michel Piccoli) painting a beautiful nude model (Emmanuel Beart), is essentially one long session at the easel: “There’s this extraordinary long, long sustained passage, where he’s simply drawing her. A lot of the time the camera is simply on the paper; and he goes through pen and ink and he goes through charcoal, he works with washes, he goes on to oil. The suspense involved in watching this process taking place is actually as exciting as a thriller, I’m telling you. It’s a really good film.”
Here, I should add, the hands of Actor Piccoli are convincingly “doubled” by those of painter Bernard Dufour. Too many times, however, in too many other films, we see an actor who obviously knows nothing about painting touching an obviously empty brush to an image that’s obviously already there. And think of Charlton Heston’s impotent brush flailing at the “pre-painted” frescoes in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). The effect is rather like watching an actor who is a non-musician pretending to play a piano—think of Cornell Wilde’s unconvincing miming of Jose Iturbi’s keyboard performances of Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945)—or Anthony Perkins’s clumsy attempts to play baseball in the Jimmy Piersall biopic, Fear Strikes Out (1957). Best to stick with the tight close-ups and prolonged shots in Peter Watkins’s Edward Munch (1967) of just the painter’s hands as they assault the canvas and the etching plate in an epic battle for supremacy, establishing a compelling graphic authenticity. A particularly wry and compelling example is found in one of the finest films of this year, Tim’s Vermeer. We watch spellbound as amateur painter Tim Jenison actually creates a Vermeer painting, “The Music Lesson”—not a copy, but an original work on its own, crafted by means of optical devices and an elaborately recreated 3-dimensional set. We gain not only an insight into how Vermeer worked, but are granted enticing hints into the life, times, and circumstances of this particular painting. As a dramatic experience, the film crosses the boundary lines dividing documentary from drama, the amateur painter from the venerable master.
Indeed, Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” is the star performer of the show. Which brings to mind another star turn by Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” (2003), in Peter Webber’s film of that name. The conception and execution of the painting is positioned at the center of this beautifully realized milieu of 17th-century Amsterdam and the illiterate young servant girl (Scarlett Johansson) who poses for the painter (Colin Firth).
It’s amusing to think of other paintings as actors in their own movies. A slashed canvas is a mute “witness” to the identity of the murderer in Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). Landscape Paintings and their real-life counterparts are counterposed in the “Van Gogh” sequence in Kurosawa’s Dreams. Likewise, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s images of Lizzie Siddal share screen time with actress Judith Paris’s impersonation of her in Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno (1967). No single image in the succession of sketches by the titular late 17th-century painter (Anthony Higgins) in Peter Greenaway’s edgy The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) can reveal the mystery at the heart of the film; but taken together, like a succession of shots in a montage. . . they proclaim an awful truth—and lead to the demise of the hapless painter.
The colorful religious icons of the 15th century painter Andrei Rublev in Tarkovsky’s epic film (1971) are kept “offstage,” as it were, blazing forth only in a barrage of images in the final reel. Of course, not all paintings at the center of movies are A-list actors. The Technicolor portraits of Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jenny (1949) and Hurd Hatfield in Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) are strictly B-grade performers—the first a tepid Hollywood visualization of one of Thomas Dewings’s turn-of-the century vapid women; the second a schlock nightmare straight out of Hammer Films stock company.
Sometimes just a blank canvas can speak eloquently enough. In the aforementioned Rembrandt (1936), Charles Laughton’s titular hero sits at the easel as he grieves the loss of his beloved Saskia. “I have to paint her,” he whispers to the empty chair where lately she sat, “before her memory fades.”
So we wait impatiently for the holiday release of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. It is the only biopic to date about England’s most celebrated painter. What, we wonder, will Leigh make of this prickly and decidedly eccentric loner, and of what Leigh describes as his “cinematic” paintings, such as the roiling “Rain, Steam, and Speed” and the furiously grim “The Slave Ship”?