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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Flying in the face of convention


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Mick Davis
Running time: 126 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

One of the standard criticisms aimed at famous painter bio-pics (Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Jan Vermeer are among those whose lives have been transferred to the big screen) is that they focus too much on the painters' loves and lives instead of the most important thing: their art. "Modigliani" is the latest in the genre to be released here, and though well-crafted and gorgeously depicted, it pretty much invites that same criticism.

News photo
Andy Garcia and Elsa Zylberstein in "Modigliani"

Best known as a Parisian artist at the forefront of the Modernist movement, Modigliani's legacy consists mostly of arresting portraits of women, their very souls shining through their large pupilless eyes. In "Modigliani," the artist takes a back seat as the man, his lover and the friendship/rivalry he shared with Picasso are described by director Mick Davis with much love and reverence. Apparently, this had been Davis' pet project for a long time, but when it comes to depicting depressed artists with alcohol and substance-abuse problems, many other directors have already beat him to it. Then again, were there ever brilliant painters who was sober, well-behaved and ideal husband/fathers? Or more importantly, would their life stories make for interesting cinema?

Modigliani had an intensely personal vision, and he was among the first artists to transfer his inner mindscape to canvas, to tear away the trappings of tradition, fashion and socio-political connotations. Women were his subject of choice. In the Parisian art world of 1919, his portraits were declared primitive, while his nudes were deemed too scandalous for public display. On his canvas, women revealed themselves and their inherent sexuality, which existed apart from any desire for marriage or children, which, of course, flew right in the face of the status quo.

It's said that Picasso feared Modigiani the most, not only as a professional rival but also as a fellow seducer of the lovely young things who frequented their haunts and modeled for their art. But while Picasso went on to become a 20th-century icon, Modigliani died at age 35 as the direct result of poverty, dissipation and self-abuse. "Modigliani" shows how he sacrificed himself at the altar of art and personal freedom, a free spirit that descended on the world several decades too early.

The movie is much like the painter's works: Withholding information, it relies on ambience, texture and veiled innuendos. Suffice to say, we don't always know what's going on, but the whole thing looks irresistible. Thanks to production designer Giantio Burchiellano and cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh, the back streets of Montparnasse circa 1919 (where Modigliani and his friends had their ateliers) and the Cafe Rotonde (where they usually hung out) have never seemed so darkly enticing, so attractively bohemian.

The opening sequence shows Modi (Andy Garcia) waltzing into the cafe with a bouquet of scarlet roses -- he hangs his hat on the stand, and then with a regal flourish gets up on one of the tables to do a little dance. Picasso (Omid Djalili) looks on with a mixture of contempt and grudging affection. Surrounded by an entourage of admirers and already the talk of the Parisian salons, suave Picasso always had cash in his pockets whereas arch-rival Modigliani was penniless, grungy and willfully self-destructive. So much in fact, that the parents of his girlfriend, Jeanne (Elsa Zylberstein), had forbidden her ever to see him again, even though she had just given birth to his baby daughter.

Desperate for even a glimpse of her lover, Jeanne stands outside his apartment in the pouring rain, holding the baby. "He needs to see his daughter!" she wails when her father comes to take her away. And where was Modi all this time? Probably out drinking somewhere, or exchanging quips with Picasso.

All this is familiar terrain in the land of artist bio-pics, but the real problem is casting. Garcia performs with trademark cockiness and an easy, seductive charm and that's about it. The film fails to depict any substance in the artist, no depth to his passion nor does it show any insight into his self-destructive impulses. True, he was bent on burning the candle at both ends -- in between the opium, the drinking and painting he was busy enchanting various Parisian celebrities, from Gertrude Stein (Miriam Margolyes) to the retired Renoir (Theodor Danetti) and everyone sensed he was headed to an early grave. But in the meantime, Modigliani's angst and complexities never quite surface. Besides, Garcia looks a bit too heavy to fit the bill of a starving painter.

Elsa Zylberstein, on the other hand, evokes far more despair in half the screen time. As Jeanne, she wears an aura of passion and mystery like a delicate cape and when she poses for Modi, her whole figure seems literally to melt and then merge with his canvas. Surely, the story would have benefited more if it were a study of Jeanne because when she's out of the frame the film loses anchor and drifts aimlessly on the wet cobblestones of Montparnasse. Without ever slipping into melodrama, Jeanne makes it clear that she's ready to sacrifice anything -- her parents, her baby, her own life -- to stick by Modi (she actually leaves her newborn in her parents' house to do exactly that) for reasons never entirely explained.

Consider their first meeting: Modi comes to teach at the art school where Jeanne is a student and the two immediately lock gazes. Outside the classroom, he smilingly asks if she would like to pose for him. Almost immediately, the pair begin to live together. At the time, Jeanne was 19 and from a strict bourgeois/Catholic family. Surely the process by which she freed herself from conventional bonds would have added more conviction to their love story.

Instead, Jeanne appears only as a figure in certain indicative vignettes: When Jeanne's mother comes to try and retrieve her daughter one day, she finds an emaciated Jeanne on her knees, scrubbing the apartment toilet. "I wish you'd have come earlier, it was so much filthier then," says Jeanne defiantly. And where was Modi? Probably out drinking somewhere.

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