Thursday, September 1, 2011


Piling on the Paint With a Trowel in Paris, or Romania
Published: July 1, 2005

The best and maybe the only use to be made of the catastrophic screen biography "Modigliani" is to serve as a textbook outline of how not to film the life of a legendary artist. Here is a checklist of some don'ts, offered in no particular order.

Don't cast a wide-eyed little boy as the dissipated grown-up artist's sorrowful inner child showing up to mope cutely whenever Modi, as the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani is nicknamed, lands in hot water. Don't surround your famous subject with famous friends who look and act like mannequins unless you have some notion of how to give them real personalities instead of cartoonlike traits.

Picasso (Omid Djalili) as a stout glowering oaf chewing on a pipe will not do. Nor will Gertrude Stein (Miriam Margolyes) as a bossy, bug-eyed Jewish-mother caricature. It's not a good idea to have these people and their friends show up like a robotic cheering section to shout and sing in unison at birthday parties and other festive events. Better to bring in the chorus from "La Boheme"; at least it can really sing.

And don't forget what era you are in. When the painter and his sweetheart do a back-bending kiss in silhouette on the rain-swept streets of Paris (actually Romania, where most of the movie was filmed), it's not appropriate to play Edith Piaf's "Vie en Rose" over the soundtrack; that recording is still three decades in the future from the late teens, when this scene takes place.

Don't have your leading lady (the Modigliani-esque Elsa Zylberstein, who plays Jeanne Hebuterne, the mother of their young daughter) face the camera in the movie's opening scene and drone: "Have you ever loved so deeply that you would condemn yourself to eternity in hell? I have," and expect to be taken seriously. Don't have your tragic, romantic hero croon to his lady love minutes later: "Come, I want to see you in the rain. I love the rain. I love what it says."

No kidding, the two-hour-plus movie is crammed with yards of this stuff. In a director's note, its creator, Mick Davis, compares the Paris art scene of 1919 to the 1960's "with Lennon, Joplin, Dylan, Jagger, Morrison, Hendrix." But wasn't a similar comparison of yesterday's art stars to today's rock idols applied with far more wit and ingenuity in "Impromptu"?

Don't forget that painters' styles develop over time. The only inspiration "Modigliani" recognizes is that of Jeanne, to whom he croons, "When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes." No mention is made of African sculpture.

The movie, however, isn't completely insensitive to art history. In an early scene, Modigliani publicly humiliates his archrival, Picasso, by waltzing drunkenly around a bistro with a rose in his teeth, plunking himself on Picasso's lap and sneering: "The future of art is in a woman's face. Tell me, Picasso, how do you make love to a cube?" Gasps all around.

But the biggest don't is to cast an actor with the face of a ventriloquist's dummy as Modigliani. The artist, who died at 35 of complications from tuberculosis abetted by severe alcohol and drug abuse, deserves better and younger than jowly, glassy-eyed Andy Garcia, who, at 49, is 15 years too old for the part.

Mr. Garcia wanders through the movie, his gleaming dark locks falling just so, furiously blinking his eyes to express emotion, a fixed little smile playing about his lips. That beatific smirk is the same smile Peter Sellers affixed to the mouth of Chauncey Gardiner, his sagelike nonentity in "Being There." Such a look doesn't have to convey anything, because it implies Everything. Vagueness is genius, is it not? Chauncey knew.

"Modigliani" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has nudity, strong language and sexual situations.

Opens today in Manhattan and Miami.

Directed by Mick Davis; written by Mr. Davis; director of photography, Manu Kadosh; edited by Emma E. Hickox; production designer, Giantito Burchiellaro; produced by Philippe Martinez, Stephanie Martinez, Andre Djaoui and Alan Latham; released by Bauer Martinez Studios. Running time: 128 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Andy Garcia (Amedeo Modigliani), Elsa Zylberstein (Jeanne Hebuterne), Omid Djalili (Pablo Picasso), Miriam Margolyes (Gertrude Stein), Hippolyte Girardot (Utrillo) and Udo Kier (Max Jacob).

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