A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Raúl Ruiz, 2006, 126 mins, Austria/France/Germany/UK
Cast: John Malkovich, Veronica Ferres, Saffron Burrows
The Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz belongs to the fabulist tradition of narrative-based arts in Latin America. Incorporating magical realism into his storytelling, he manipulates flashbacks and hallucinatory sequences to dumbfounding effect. And Klimt, his biopic of the Austrian artist, is no exception.
Beginning in a hospital in Vienna in 1918 where an unconscious/sleeping Gustav Klimt (Malkovich) is being treated for Syphilis, the story then switches to the turn of the century when the artist experienced varying degrees of success in his career. Along the way, he meets, falls in love with, and paints the elusive Léa de Castro (Burrows), the star of a film by the celebrated filmmaker Georges Méliès.
In an effort, perhaps, to preempt detractors of the film, Ruiz has admitted to expecting criticism of the film’s focus on “the detail” at the expense of “the whole” (in other words, on its preference for atmosphere over historical accuracy). But then Klimt himself plied his art in just such a manner by favouring “the ornament to total expression”, which, Ruiz has pointed out, was characteristic of the era. So in terms of his film’s narrative (de)construction, Ruiz has cannily sought to approximate not only his subject’s approach to painting but also the character of Vienna circa 1900. For they were, to a certain extent, mutually determined.
If Klimt achieves what it set out to in terms of mirroring the artistic practice of its eponymous subject, then in so doing it also ends up being incredibly baffling. Significantly, its narrative is filtered through the morphine-induced dreams of Klimt as he lies on his deathbed, resulting in a distinctly subjective approach to biographical fidelity (as already mentioned, historical accuracy isn’t foremost on Ruiz’s mind). And although it eventually – and gratifyingly – becomes apparent that the series of phantasmagorical episodes is inspired by Klimt’s illness and/or his medication, the inclusion of doppelgangers and imaginary characters and situations certainly doesn’t clarify matters. In effect, the film is a muddle of convoluted sequences that doesn’t satisfactorily enlighten its audience as to the human being behind the public figure, which is surely the purpose of a biopic. But then this isn’t a conventional biographical picture and is possibly too lyrical to even be considered one. The most salient insight into Klimt’s character is that he was promiscuous. Other than this one, clichéd observation, the film is frustratingly short on detail.
Yet Klimt is designed and filmed with real elegance: the washed out shades of grey form the backdrop to vibrant golds, reds, and greens – the very colours that Klimt himself used to such striking effect. And just as the artist himself was often criticised for not adhering to the expectations of those who commissioned him to fulfil a generic role (exemplified by his paintings Philosophy (1900) and Medicine (1901)), so perhaps will his cinematic namesake for eschewing the conventions of the biopic. In this respect, Klimt the film shares the same ideology with Klimt the artist, but is nevertheless unrewarding for those unfamiliar with Klimt the man.