Films to Love: Art for Film's Sake


Confession: When I posted about Tasha Alexander’s A Fatal Waltz earlier this month (see post here), I had an incurable itch for all things Klimt. Well, since my reading schedule has been set a tad too hard and fast for my liking (I just have things that NEED to be read by certain dates), I resorted to film, which led me down a road, exploring the films I love that delve into the art world, which, in turn, took me down the road to today’s blog post: Films To Love: Art for Film’s Sake. Let’s start with Klimt. 


The Woman in Gold

When it comes to a satisfying Klimt film, I could think of no other film than The Woman in Gold. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, then I encourage you to put it on your list. The Woman in Gold follows the true story of Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugees who emigrated to America from Austria at the start of World War II, and her bid to reclaim the beloved portrait of her aunt, which happened to be painted by Gustav Klimt: Portrait of Adele Blocher-Bauer I. Aside from the fantastic quest for justice and restitution for Maria, this film gives a slice of knowledge about the subject of Klimt’s portrait. As an art historian of sorts, I appreciate the movie for that element alone. However, it also is a satisfying story not to mention an encouraging one. Sometimes, regardless of cost, regardless of length of time, standing for truth and justice is worthwhile. The movie is a wonderful vehicle for Ryan Reynolds, who plays Maria’s lawyer Randy Schoenberg. Maria is played by Helen Mirren, who is so consummate, she can do anything. 

And, as we’re talking about Helen Mirren, the next art related film is a miniseries out of Great Britain. 


Painted Lady  

The role of Maggie Sheridan was specifically written for Helen Mirren. Maggie is a blues singer past her prime. She’s contented herself with a somewhat bohemian existence in a cottage on the grounds of her childhood friend’s father, Sir Charles’ estate. All is peaceful until Sir Charles is murdered and a valuable 16th century painting is stolen. Maggie ends ups being drawn into a rather convoluted plot that deals with the underbelly of art’s black market. The film simply brims with artistic allusions. (And you all know how much I love allusions, literary or otherwise.) Within the plot, the painting that takes center stage is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes. However, there are reference to two other paintings of note. The first is the exquisitely recreated The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David in the bathtub sequence at the beginning of the film. The other is the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Giovanni Bassi, which is the inspiration for the near murder of one of the characters in the series. 

I must add that while this film is intriguing in its own right with a tight and twisting plot, I appreciate the amount of time the screenwriters gave to the genius of Artemisia Gentileschi, the most prominent female artist of the Italian Baroque period. In fact, she is still held up with great esteem as a visionary female who forged the way for women within her time period. Note: The screenwriters knew what they were doing, weaving Artemisia’s troubled past (what with being raped by Agostino Tassi in her teens) with modern day developments within the storyline. The soundtrack is also bang on, with Jenny Darren singing the voice of Maggie (psst... she just appeared on Britains Got Talent this week). The opening song is one I put on heavy rotation. Love that gypsy-esque quality. 

And, if you’re looking for a biopic film that dissects the brilliance of a single work of art, I have to mention the adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s novel


Girl With a Pearl Earring

While the story unfolds through the eyes of Griet, a house maid in the Vermeer home, and her fascination with the methodology of Johannes Vermeer, the film is much more than a slice into the mysterious life of one of Flanders’ most famous painters. In fact, the creative team crafted a moving homage to Vermeer. I’ve lost track of the number of times you could freeze frame the film and say, well, that looks like a Vermeer right there. Even in the opening sequence when Griet is preparing a platter of vegetables, the use of lighting is reminiscent of that which Vermeer used in his works. The film is also full of artistic integrity in what it presents- the blending of one’s own paints and the use of the camera obscura (see post here), to say nothing of the actual Girl With a Pearl Earring painting. Another element which I appreciate is how the patron system which employed many of the artists of the day could almost control their lives. It has been many, many years since I’ve read the novel, but as Tracy Chevalier hosted a Masters Class with Olivia Hetreed, the film’s screenwriter and producer, it stands to reason that the author was satisfied with her novel’s adaptation. (And I must add that the chemistry between the principles- Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson- is exceptional. For such a sedate feeling film, they positively steam up the lens as it were.)

And, if you’re interested in more biopics, I can’t recommend the next miniseries enough.


The Impressionists

This three part series begins with an 80-year-old Monet in his renowned garden in Giverny being interviewed about his illustrious career. In the course of the interview, which segues beautifully into flashbacks of storytelling, the audience is given a very in-depth look into the artistic climate the young artists encountered and how they grew into the group which would ultimately become known as the impressionists. I thoroughly enjoy this series on a number of levels. Firstly, it’s an excellent resource to introduce younger generations to the greatness of these artists, such as Degas, Manet, Bazille, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, with even looks into other creative outlets, like the inclusion of Emile Zola. Secondly, this series affords a real look at how the art community moved from complete devotion to Salon controlled sensibilities of the idealized form to painting what the eye sees in truth. In fact, by the end of the series, the foundation is set for the viewer to understand how post-Impressionism evolved. There are even beginning hints at such modern movements as Cubism. To have a series weave that thread through the whole so well is a rare find; it should be celebrated. Thirdly, this series is driven by the paintings themselves, so true praise is given to the creation and not the creator. That doesn’t happen very often. 

My favorite bits include why Parisian society was so scandalized by Eduoard Manet’s Olympia, the meticulous detail Claude Monet went into in designing his flower garden (he laid it out so that there was something always in bloom to inspire him), and the way the series handled Cezanne. In many ways, it would have been easy to portray Cezanne’s intensity as bordering on insanity, but by including the aspects of his family life and his friendship with Emile Zola (traitor that he was), the audience is left with what I have always felt was true: Cezanne was a passionate painter with complex innovations and ideas for his work, but a simple man in his needs, tastes, and wants where his personal life was concerned. In some ways, he’s very much an innocent, and this series captured that beautifully.

And, as The Impressionist is a docu-drama, I’ll offer this next one, which is simply a documentary. A very interesting one at that.

Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless
— Banksy on Thierry Guetta

Ever hear of Mr. Brainwash? Well, neither had I until this documentary. I have to thank David Waldmann, accomplished artist and one of my father’s dearest friends, for bringing this one to my attention. The artwork I gravitate to is most definitely not street artwork. However, in the current artistic culture, it’s impossible not to have heard of Banksy and his audacious street and performance artwork. The images he painted on buildings are so mainline now, you can buy prints of them or even have them printed on pillows and other kitschy items. In fact, Banksy is one of the primary artists interviewed in this documentary, which follows the progression of the street artist Thierry Guetta and how he embraced completely the creed and code of the street artists, in effect copying their style and purveying it as his own, a.k.a. the moniker Mr. Brainwash.  Many would call him a rip off. In fact, one of my favorite lines from the film is when Banksy says, “He broke all the rules. But then again, there weren’t supposed to be any rules…” While this documentary focuses particularly on Guetta, it also showcases a large slice of the street art culture and their ideologies. Most of the film, I waffled between laughter and sitting there with a gaping mouth. It’s somewhat unbelievable what Mr. Brainwash was able to do. The man was tireless. Another favorite quotes also comes from Banksy and perfectly captures the outrageous absurdity of Mr. Brainwash:  

I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.

Honestly, if you’re in the mood for something very different when it comes to art, I encourage you to watch this documentary. Another one I have on my list that’s in the same vein is Saving Banksy. I find this sub culture in the art world absolutely fascinating. 

And, because you know how much I adore a tight thriller (see posts here and here), I have to include this final film.


The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

I include the year here because The Thomas Crown Affair I am referring to is not the famous one with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, but the remake with Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan. In this revamp, rather than getting his jollies off in robbing a bank, billionaire Thomas Crown gets his kicks orchestrating the pilfering of San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk by Monet from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are a few incidents in the film I applaud. The first is the ingenious use of the Trojan Horse. Crown smuggles his thieves into the museum in the belly of a sculptured horse. How perfect is that! Honestly, sit down Christian Grey, you obviously can’t hold a candle to the sophistication and wry humor of Mr. Crown. The theft brings in Catherine Banning, an investigator sent to help the NYPD by the insurers of the painting. When Crown gets a look at this torch, he shifts the game plan and draws her into play with such maneuvers as returning the painting anonymously only to have it discovered that it’s a forgery atop Poker Sympathy. The plot is slick and quick and complex, but one of my favorite parts comes at the culmination when innumerable men dressed in trench coats and bowlers (clearing a tipping of the hat to Magritte and his The Son of Man painting) descend on the Met, leading the police on a merry chase which ends with a wing of the museum being shut down. When it opens again, the Monet is back in place and Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil by Manet- the painting Banning happened to mention to Crown as her favorite- missing. I’ll not tell you anymore. If you want a fun evening, this film is just the thing. (Must mention its R rating. There’s a bit of explicit nudity and a sex scene or two.)

Well, that’s it for me. I know that are innumerable other art movies I could have included, but these are the ones that stood out to me. (Okay, fine. I need to mention Incognito starring Irene Jacob, whose name is uncannily close to my maiden one- Eirene Jacobs. The movie is not high budget, but it has some excellent painting sequences, delving into how to make a truly passable forgery.) All right. Now I’m really done. 

But, now, it’s your turn. Do you have a favorite movie or documentary that revolves around art? Please share it.