You know the old quote, ‘I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like!’ Well, I only know a bit about Art, but quite a lot about films. Here are some suggestions that manage to combine the two, providing visual delights, exciting action, and some great acting in the process.
Caravaggio. Whatever you think of the controversial English film-maker, Derek Jarman, don’t let it put you off this 1986 work. Despite the quirky additions to the story, ( a typewriter in 17th Century Italy!) strong performances by a very good cast make this well-worth watching. The story of Carvaggio is told both on film, and by his paintings. His love interest, played by a younger Sean Bean, is an integral part of the plot also, with Bean taking hold of the film for the most part, and overshadowing Nigel Terry, in the lead role. What makes it so powerful as a film, is the way that Jarman lights and photographs the scenes, until they look, for all the world, like the actual paintings themselves. Tilda Swinton, a Jarman favourite, also has a role, and if you can forgive the liberties taken with time and place, you will be rewarded with a rich and unusual experience. Here is a clip that gives a feel of the film.
Frida. In this 2002 film, the gorgeous Salma Hayek sports a ‘uni-brow’ and traditional dress, in a magnificently acted portrayal of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Set during the 1920’s and 1930’s, her life is examined in great detail, from a crippling accident in her youth, to her tempestuous relationship with fellow revolutionary artist Diego Rivera. Her work is shown in the film, as in progress, or as completed canvases; but even if you are not a fan, the film stands on its own anyway, as the interesting biography of this unusual woman, her life and loves, both male and female, and her affair with the exiled Russian Communist, Leon Trotsky. The supporting cast is first-rate too, with Alfred Molina as her lover, Rivera, Antonio Banderas as David, and Edward Norton as the American tycoon, Nelson Rockerfeller. You win either way, Art lover, or not. Here’s Frida doing a sexy Tango, with a girl.
Rembrandt. This is the 1936 version, starring Charles Laughton, and directed by Alexander Korda, in sumptuous black and white. Following almost thirty years in the life of the master painter, towards the end of the 17th century. Charles Laughton is superb in the title role, playing with arrogance, pathos, and twinkling comedy by turn. Elsa Lanchester (Laughton’s actual wife) is his love interest, the marvellously-named Hendrikje Stoffels. We see the artist famous, then penniless, and finally derided, as his paintings get darker and more realistic, and his patrons desert him. A wonderful film, about one of the best painters that ever lived. The performance by Laughton, ageing to reflect the passing years, is one of the best ever from this distinguished English actor. Here is the complete film. A joy, and free of charge too.
Girl With A Pearl Earring. This 2003 film, the first directed by Peter Webber, adds an element of ‘faction’ to the documented life of Dutch Master painter, Johannes Vermeer. It works with the premise, that the background to his famous painting (of the film’s title) involved one of the servants in his household. To be honest, the story is neither here nor there, serving only as a frame on which to drape the magnificent sets, wonderful period feel, and tremendous cinematography, that all make this film so memorable. Vermeer is played well enough by Colin Firth, and Scarlett Johansson is perfectly cast in the title role; though it is Judy Parfitt who steals the film, as the scheming mother in-law of Vermeer, Maria Thins; her malevolent presence lighting up the story whenever she appears. Historical accuracy is of the highest order, and the politics of Holland at the time are touched upon, as well as the struggles of the artist, to achieve patronage, and fame. Despite all of this , it is visually where the film scores the most, with every scene and set-piece a representation of painting in the Dutch style. Magnificent. Here is a short compilation of scenes.
Goya’s Ghosts. This film is from 2006, and is a sprawling story, not only dealing with aspects of the life of Francisco Goya, but also the Spanish Inquisition, ( still active in 1800!) and Napoleon’s war against Spain. It has a cast of some of the best actors from around the world, with Stellan Skarsgard as Goya, Natalie Portman as his muse, Ines, and Javier Bardem, as the evil Brother Lorenzo. There is even an appearance by Randy Quaid, playing very much against type, as King Carlos IV of Spain. We are shown scenes of torture, infidelity, prostitution, betrayal, and war, and they even manage to get in something about Goya’s paintings! A big-budget, modern film, with solid performances, and a rollicking story. Who could ask for more? Here is the American trailer.
So, you didn’t think you would like ‘worthy’ films about Old Masters, and surrealist painters, under any circumstances? Fling off the cape of prejudice, and think again.