Our eye on… Films at home

Our team review some of their favourite art films that have kept them entertained during lockdown.

Midnight in Paris – Reviewed by Morgan Long, Senior Director

Midnight in Paris is just the kind of film one is looking for in the middle of an increasingly longer and longer lock down at home:

1. You have clever Woody Allen repartee, such as the kind one wishes they were engaging in, with someone other than the dog or the houseplant.

2. An endearing protagonist, willing to upend the cliché of the ‘ugly American abroad’ as he enthuses over the possibilities and joys of life, realising that one needs to embrace the present, rather than the past. Something we all need reminding of, now that lives are still shifting into the ‘new normal’.

3. Lush photography displaying Paris at its most appealing and touristic. Even grumpy Parisian cafe waiters seem charming in retrospect, now that the only service one can get is from an Uber scooter driver and the croissants come frozen in an online food shop.

4. A dazzling array of the best and brightest artistes that Paris had to offer during the Roaring 20s and then the Belle Époque. It drops our hero headfirst into the heady party circuit of Josephine Baker, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dalí, the list goes on and on. Then the story takes us back even deeper, to meet Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin. It’s a who’s who of the great and good of the Parisian scene and lets our hero wax eloquent every time he meets one of his heroes, in what must be the most enjoyable and evocative Paris-Style Art History 101 that Hollywood has ever produced.

5. Walking along the Seine! Visiting the Marché aux Puces! Visiting the Musée Rodin! No social distancing! I will stop now.

Velvet Buzzsaw – reviewed by Charlie Wood, Art Associate

Amongst the monotony of lockdown, Velvet Buzzsaw is the perfect antidote, a Netflix horror film about the art world, combining fright with satire. Highbrow cinema it is not, but it is certainly ideal for an indulgent moment of escapism.

It opens at Art Basel Miami and sets up a web of relationships and rivalries around simultaneously respected and feared art critic, Morf Vanderwalt, adeptly played by Jake Gyllenhaal (I will let you decide if there is any resemblance to a certain spectacle wearing art world personality). There is sharkish punk rocker-turned-gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) and Josephina (Zawe Ashton), a humiliated protégée working in Rhodora’s Haze Gallery, amongst a sundry of other comical gallerists, curators, and artists.

When a neighbour dies, Josephine finds an apartment filled with “otherworldly” art and his work soon becomes the big break she is looking for but as the buzz builds, so do the bodies. Fleetingly debating the ethics of exhibiting dead man Virtril Dease’s paintings, Josephine comments “What’s the point of art if no one sees it?” – which immediately struck a chord with me whilst pining to see art in the flesh again (although certainly not this art!)

As someone who well versed in the horror genre it felt light on scares and funnier in its satire of the money and the commercialization of art. Highlights are when an gallery technician/ artist mansplains how to pronounce the Broad Museum to a much-abused gallery assistant. Or when a brash curator, Gretchen (Toni Collette), gleefully leaves her museum job to become a higher earning art adviser. A particular favourite being John Malkovich who plays a creatively blocked bluechip artist. He mercilessly toys with another gallerist trying to poach him from Haze Gallery as the agent embarrassingly compliments a pile of rubbish, mistaken for sculpture in Piers’ studio. Rhodora strategically forcing collectors who want work by her artist of the moment—Dease—to buy three paintings to support Piers’ market was a notably sharp observation of gallery politics.

Exaggerated caricatures though they are (I mean in what world can one art critic’s review immediately kill a $4 million sale?), this Faustian tale provides brilliant entertainment whilst we all patiently wait for the real life art world to return to normal.

The Moderns: A Film by Alan Rudolph 1988 – reviewed by Guy Jennings, Managing Director

Many years ago unable to sleep on the ‘red eye’ coming back from New York I happened across a film called The Moderns. I was totally gripped and although I had not seen it since, (until a few days ago), I have long considered it one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen. You will not be surprised when I tell you that it is set in the 1920’s Paris art world and features such characters as an avaricious collector who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, painters cum forgers and unscrupulous dealers. As well as genuine historical figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, and a supporting cast of ex patriot Americans enjoying life in what was still then the centre of civilisation.

The Moderns is in fact a superbly well-crafted period piece which pays much attention to detail. Close concentration will show that the bar in which Hemingway scribbles is called the Selavy and its owner is called Rose. Backdrops of the Eiffel Tower are all based on Delaunay paintings and although filmed in Montreal, the Paris of Montmartre and Montparnasse is lovingly recreated as director Alan Rudolph intersperses his action with black and white footage of the boulevards and the streets which subtly melds into the colour of the film’s action. It is a complicated film with several overlapping and interlocking story lines, but all are concerned with contrasting appearance and reality. The leading lady Rachel Stone tellingly asks her unfaithful husband the meaning of verisimilitude which has puzzled her. Everyone is playing a part and trying to appear other than they really are from Gertrude Stein to Nick Hart, played by Keith Carradine, who is based on Hemingway’s friend, the American painter Henry Strater. In fact, The Moderns owes much to Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’, in one telling vignette towards the end Hemingway, played by Kevin O’Connor, ponders calling his work in progress ‘a portable banquet’. Detail is all with Rudolph. Works by Modigliani, Cezanne and Matisse also play a crucial role in muddying the waters between appearance and reality as they are sold to American magnate Bertram Stone, who has made his fortune manufacturing condoms, resulting in the most delightful final scene rich with irony in the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New York.

After so long considering this much overlooked and almost forgotten work to be a masterpiece I was nervous when the DVD popped through my letter box last week. I was anxious that I might have ill-remembered the film through loss of sleep or jet lag, might I be disappointed?. Fortunately The Moderns remains as good as I remembered, if not better. I watched it twice, on consecutive nights, and will now be proselytising on its behalf. The Moderns is stylish, witty, closely and well observed and above all a very, very clever film. All I can say is watch it.

The Best Offer – reviewed by Gloria Lucchese, Registrar

I first watched this movie when I was looking for a job and needed some welcome distraction from the stress of applications. What pushed me to watch this movie was not just free time, but the positive reviews, directed by Academy Winner director Giuseppe Tornatore, starring famous actors like Geoffrey Rush and Donald Sutherland with music by Ennio Morricone. My interest was piqued!

The story is set mostly in Italy, and it tells about the life of a wealthy and aged managing director of a major auction house, Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush). Virgil has built his own collection, hung in a secret room in his house, composed of only women’s portraits, of which he is obsessed. He stares at these paintings as members of a family he doesn’t have. Along comes Claire, a mysterious woman forced to never leave her house because of a supposed agoraphobia, hires Virgil to sell her parents’ collection.

At the beginning, Virgil seems to be annoyed by the ambiguous behaviour of the woman, but then he starts to build some rapport with Claire, intrigued by the details about her life. Virgil becomes obsessed and when he is finally able to meet her, he falls in love. Finally, the two establish a relationship and Claire is able to go beyond her fears and moves in Virgil’s house. But this apparently quiet situation is suddenly overturned: drama begins when Virgil discovers he has been robbed…

What really engaged me was the intriguing figure of Claire, her paintings and Virgil’s obsession with his collection. But also the dramatic change in the second part of the film (which I won’t spoil!) and how intense is the identification with the protagonist. Whilst looking for jobs in the artworld, I often wondered if the story was inspired by reality or it was just fantasy.  And now that I finally have the job that I was looking for, in this fascinating, beguiling and sometimes eccentric industry, I can say that yes, these sorts of things can happen!

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