This film is purportedly a biopic of the noted Austrian art nouveau
artist Gustav Klimt
Klimt is painted as a atheistic womanizer with
several illegitimate children and an obsession with Jewesses. He is
disdainful of officials and critics, and claims not to care what
people think about him, but really wants his art to be accepted.
As the film opens, Klimt is delirious, dying of advanced
syphilis. (Note that the real Klimt died of a stroke.) An old friend
visits, and we see highlights from Klimt's life in
flashback, usually through mirrors and reflections. If there is a
central conflict, it is Klimt's obsession with a woman, but it is
never clear precisely whether that woman is a single woman. He is in
Paris, receiving a gold medal for his work, and a short film is
presented depicting him and a woman. He falls instantly in love with
either Lea de Castro or somebody pretending to be Lea de Castro.
Since Klimt's past is viewed through his present delirium, this is
not an easy distinction to make!
He is later summoned to an apartment where one Lea, pretending to
be another Lea, seduces him, while another Lea and her benefactor
watch through a two way mirror. Lea commissions him to make two
portraits, which he never finishes. Another major character is a
public official, who is actually Klimt's imagination and alter ego,
not to mention at least one and possibly more Klimt doubles.
Director Raoul Ruiz says that he chose to show the artist as a
"phantasmagoria" and was attempting to do with film what Klimt did
with canvas. Read his thoughts here.
You have to give the director points for imaginative experimentation
but, unfortunately, his reliance on imagination essentially means this biopic bears
little resemblance to the real Klimt (Lea de Castro is a fictional
character, for example), and is virtually incoherent to
boot. The narrative problem is made all
the greater by a studio-ordered cut from 127 minutes to 97 minutes,
stranding some scenes without the necessary explanatory material
that was (presumably) cut. The film, at least in its present
form, just doesn't work, and
I wonder if the longer director's cut would be more accessible.
The film is not without plusses. First, John
Malkovich plays the title role. Second, the set decoration is
wonderful, as is the cinematography. Finally, there are lots of
naked and attractive women. This film will be of interest to the art
film crowd and nudity buffs, and hence does have a small audience.
Others should probably avoid it.
Klimt is pretty much of a self-reviewing movie. It was written by a
native Spanish speaker in French, then translated into German for the crew
in the Austrian and German filming locations, then translated into English
for the actors to perform. The director produced a 127-minute cut which the
producer deemed totally unmarketable and cut to 93 minutes.
And that's not the worst of it. The capper on the situation is that it
was written to be surrealistic in the first place! Although it is supposed
to be about the Jugendstil artist Gustav Klimt, the writer/director
conceived it not as a biopic, but as a "phantasmagoria" - "a constantly
changing medley of real or imagined images, as in a dream," and it is told
through the stream of consciousness of a man dying in the last stages of
Knowing all that, how much of a review do you need?
Even if you could have read the original version, it would have made
little to no sense, not even if the director had written it in his native
language. Since it began its life incoherent by design, you can imagine what
it's like now, many generations removed from its original conception.
Essentially the film ignores the real Gustav Klimt, other than the fact
that he lived in Vienna during the fin de siecle and was recognized
for having painted some works which were as controversial as they were
important. The real Klimt never died of syphilis, as pictured here, and he
never had a lover named Lea de Castro, who is pictured here as a composite
of many of Klimt's paramours. As I interpret it, "Lea" was Klimt's Dulcinea,
his romantic ideal, and he thought every one of his true loves was the real
Lea - until the next one came along. Confusingly, but perhaps appropriately,
all of the Leas are played by the same actress (Saffron Burrows). Even more
confusingly, the film is not consistent in its presentation of multiple
identities. There are also alternate Klimts, but they are all played by
different actors! Although other characters ask Klimt why he is talking to
himself, is it not completely clear to the audience whether that is the
case. If all that isn't confusing enough for you, there are some elements of
the film which just seem like outright flubs. Although English represents
the German actually spoken by the actors' real-life counterparts, a few
exchanges of dialogue are in German, and the appearance of these exchanges
(with no subtitles) appears to be completely random! If English represents
German, what does German represent?
You could probably create many other equally defensible explanations of
the multiple identities and shifting time frames, since the film is itself a
work of non-representational art and thus subject to many possible
interpretations. Remember again that the story we watch exists in the
jumbled logic of a man in the feverish recollections of his death throes.
If the film succeeds at all, it is in providing pictorializations of the
opulence and decadence in that era just before the Great War, as well as of
the work of Klimt himself, awash in gold paint, sexual imagery, symbolism,
and swirling floral patterns. If you want to see a film which IS abstract
art, it might have some appeal for you. If you want to see a film ABOUT the
art or artists of that time, take a pass, because you'll learn nothing here.