Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Portrait of a Ladies’ Man
Published: October 17, 2007

John Malkovich has virtually cornered the market on portraying cold, obsessive aesthetes in the thrall of demonic visions. And in ‘Klimt,’ Raul Ruiz’s lavish biographical fantasia, his depiction of the Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt adds another Mephistophelean figure to his gallery of elegant monsters.

The painter, who died in 1918 at 55, joins Proust’s Baron de Charlus in Mr. Ruiz’s ‘Time Regained,’ the silent film director F. W. Murnau in ‘Shadow of the Vampire,’ Gilbert Osmond in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ and Valmont in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ in the roster of sinister Malkovich eccentrics, all more or less interchangeable beneath their elaborate period get-ups.

The actor’s chilly stare, attenuated speech and attitude of towering hauteur define a mannered acting style that is a technique unto itself. These imperious alter egos have little feeling for others, who are depicted as helpless objects in the laboratory of a mad scientist.

I have not seen the 130-minute director’s cut of ‘Klimt’ that was shown at the 2006 Berlin and Rotterdam film festivals, but I imagine it was structurally more sound than the 97-minute blur of a movie that opens today in New York. It’s not that Mr. Ruiz, a Chilean-born surrealist based in Paris since 1973, is the most accessible of filmmakers to begin with. The shortened version is lovely to look at, but the stilted dialogue and crude overdubbing in scenes where English is not spoken often make it an impenetrable hodgepodge.

‘Klimt’ can be appreciated as a voluptuous wallow in high-style fin-de-siocle ‘decadence,’ to use a word bandied about in the film as a synonym for evil. The overstuffed salons of upper-class Vienna in the waning days of the Habsburg Empire are so cluttered with expensive ornaments that moving around feels like navigating inside a giant wedding cake.

The salon guests prattle endlessly about art. What is beauty? Can a portrait be an allegory? Blah blah blah. When the subject isn’t aesthetics, it is gossip and scandal. Half the men in Vienna suffer from syphilis, muses a doctor who is giving Klimt mercury treatments for that very disease.

The possibility of contagion doesn’t stop Klimt from continuing his sexual rampage. His studio is crowded with beautiful nude models, many of whom he beds, and rumors fly that he has sired 30 illegitimate children. In one phantasmagoric scene, he and a friend visit a brothel in which they don gorilla masks to cavort in a cage with women wearing paste-on mustaches.

The movie is more interested in observing Klimt carousing than making art, and works like his most famous painting, ‘The Kiss,’ are not shown. The screenplay refers to the Vienna Secession, the school of painting he led, without explaining it.

What unfolds on the screen is a fever dream that begins in a hospital where Klimt lies nearly comatose. He died of pneumonia shortly after suffering a stroke that paralyzed his right side. The life that passes before his eyes is the cinematic analogue to his paintings and drawings, with images glimpsed in mirrors, through camera lenses, microscopes and one-way glass. The angular visual distortions suggest the world reflected in shards of a shattered mirror that may be a metaphor for the crumbling Habsburg Empire at the end of World War I. Eventually Klimt’s memories give way to hallucinations.

Klimt was deeply influenced by the turn-of-the-century filmmaker Georges M’li’s (Gunther Gillian), whom he meets in the 1900 Paris Expo where Klimt is awarded a gold medal for his work ‘Philosophy.’ Molios shows him a film clip of the dancer Lea de Castro (Saffron Burrows), who becomes Klimt’s muse and possibly his lover. Hovering throughout much of the movie is an unanswered question about the woman introduced to him as Lea. Is she really Lea or her double?

Throughout, Klimt is shadowed by a character called the Secretary (Stephen Dillane), a puritanical censor and investigator into his murky finances, who declares late in the movie that too little beauty is preferable to too much. In Paris Klimt’s intensely erotic paintings are viewed as deliciously naughty; in Vienna they are scandalous. Klimt’s blase attitude toward all this high-flown nonsense is expressed in a frequently iterated expletive.

The director’s vision of the artist as a monster at large in high society belongs to the genre popularized by Ken Russell that rejects the sentimental Hollywood depiction of the artist as bleeding-heart martyr. That doesn’t mean that its attitude toward art is any less romanticized. Saint or devil, Klimt is still larger than life.

Opens today in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Raul Ruiz; director of photography, Ricardo Aronovich; edited by Valeria Sarmiento; music by Jorge Arriagada; production designers, Rudi Czettel and Katharina Woppermann; produced by Dieter Pochlatko, Arno Ortmair, Matthew Justice and Andreas Schmid; released by Outsider Pictures. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 97 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: John Malkovich (Klimt), Veronica Ferres (Midi), Stephen Dillane (Secretary), Saffron Burrows (Lea de Castro), Nikolai Kinski (Egon Schiele), Joachim Bissmeier (Hugo Moritz) and Georges Molios (Gunther Gillian).

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