Vivendi Visual Entertainment // 2005 // 128 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jonathan Weiss (Retired) // January 13th, 2006
"You all will live a full and rich life. But I swear to god when your time comes, when you lay there in your deathbed, the name Modigliani will not be far from your lips. You can never paint over this night; it belongs to him."
Today, unless a movie happens to be the major event of (insert holiday or major weekend here), most films come and go from first run theaters within the blink of an eye and find themselves available to the home theatre market within months, if not weeks.
Films that die a horrible death in the theatres get a new lease on life on DVD; it gives them the ability to be embraced by a whole different market. Especially niche films that aren't as heavily hyped or as readily accessible to the masses as the typical Hollywood blockbuster.
Modigliani is such a film. And it isn't.
Modigliani recounts the last year in the life of the tortured artist.
Modigliani is actually three movies rolled into one. It's a love story. It's the story of one man's self-hatred. And it's the story of two artistic rivals.
The first story is between Modigliani (Andy Garcia, Ocean's Eleven) and his lover Jeanne, the woman who bookends the film. Modigliani meets Jeanne in an art class, where the already-recognized artist makes an appearance. He quickly sweeps her off her feet and before you know it she is pregnant with the artist's child. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Jeanne's controlling father does not approve of Modigliani or of his bohemian lifestyle. Plus, he has strong anti-Semitic feelings towards the Jewish artist. Of course, Modigliani doesn't help matters by excessive drinking and dabbling in both opium and hashish. He seems to go out of his way to be belligerent and find ways to actually not sell his work, thereby proving himself to be both an unfit father and a poor husbandly provider.
Elsa Zylberstein plays Jeanne as a passionate and obsessive woman willing to do absolutely anything for her man. Though her performance is grating at times (especially the shrieking), the one truly remarkable thing about her is her uncanny resemblance to a Modigliani portrait. It's as if she stepped off a canvas and onto the screen.
The second story is about Modigliani the man. Near the beginning of the film we are taken, via flashback, into Modigliani's childhood in Italy. As he draws on a wall we witness his father and grandfather scurry around the apartment picking up valuables and pieces of furniture and racing to put them on a bed wherein lies Modigliani's mother, pregnant and quite possibly in labour. Soon the constabulary comes barging in demanding back-payment of taxes over several months. Unable to pay, Modigliani's father calls forth an ancient Italian law that prohibits the reclamation of any items stacked upon the bed of a pregnant woman. The head constable, after making a snide anti-Semitic remark, begins documenting said items. What this scene has to do with the rest of the story is a complete mystery, unless it was to introduce us to the young Modigliani (Frederico Ambrosino) who appears every so often throughout the film alongside the adult Modigliani as his conscience -- making for some of the sweetest, saddest and most poignant scenes in the movie.
The adult Modigliani is self-destructive, self-involved, and self-hating -- not necessarily in that order. At every turn he finds ways to sabotage any possibility of success. For instance, he doesn't show up for appointed commissions even when they're of influential patrons like Gertrude Stein; he walks out of another commission when the young sitter's mother starts criticizing his technique; he smashes the one painting he has on display at another artist's show to show his displeasure (more on that later); and he goes on a drinking binge on the very eve of his one artistic triumph. If it weren't for Andy Garcia's natural charisma, Modigliani would come off so completely unsympathetic that it wouldn't matter what happened to him. You simply wouldn't care.
The third story is about Modigliani's turbulent relationship and rivalry with Picasso. Omid Djalili (The Mummy) plays Picasso as a brash loose canon who would kiss you on both cheeks one minute and threaten to shoot you between the eyes the next. Modigliani is jealous of Picasso's reputation, his contacts, his never ending stream of money, and perhaps even his self-confidence as an artist. At several points through the movie Modigliani torments, insults, and openly mocks Picasso in front of his admirers -- and one would even sympathize with poor Picasso if the lousy wretch didn't deserve it so much.
For instance, in one scene Jeanne, without Modigliani's knowledge, goes to visit Picasso in his studio and pleads with him to display one of Modigliani's paintings in his show. She even brings him a small Modigliani painting she says he wants Picasso to have as a sign of respect. Picasso agrees, but there's a catch, isn't there always? We find out what that catch is at the show when Picasso's representative unveils his latest piece as "Picasso: a Work in Progress." The curtain is raised -- and there sits Jeanne, modeling for Picasso -- basically rendering Modigliani a cuckold. Modigliani is so enraged that he takes his one painting on display and smashes it upon an easel.
In another scene, while Modigliani is hosting his first one-man show, Picasso struts in with his entourage just as the constabulary barges in to demand that Modigliani's nudes be removed from the gallery windows. Biting his tongue, Modigliani agrees -- realizing that this may be his one chance to properly provide for his daughter and Jeanne, pregnant for a second time. Picasso is impressed by Modigliani's restraint and turns to go. But he hesitates, turns back to Modigliani and confesses something from the bottom of his heart: one night inspiration woke him from slumber and he didn't have an empty canvas available, so he painted over the Modigliani painting Jeanne had presented him earlier. The crowd gasps as Picasso inquires less than sincerely if Modigliani forgives him.
Later that evening, Modigliani strides into the café frequented by the artistic society in which he is a part and where Picasso has a reserved table. Picasso instantly goes for his gun, conveniently located on the table in front of him. Modigliani picks up a bottle of wine from a table and sucks it dry. Eyeing Picasso at his table, Modigliani fishes a piece of charcoal from his coat pocket, licks the tip, and defiantly signs his name to the list of artists entering Paris' annual art exhibition, basically challenging Picasso to a duel. Picasso stands, walks slowly towards Modigliani, takes the piece of charcoal from his hands, and signs his name to the list of entrants as well. Modigliani throws the bottle in the air, a vertical spinning pinwheel of motion, which Picasso catches. As Modigliani turns to leave, the café erupts into applause at the mere through of these two artists competing against each other.
As a film, Modigliani is all over the place. It doesn't know whether it's a love story, an underdog story, or the story of one man's descent into his own personal hell. Certain scenes are excellent; such as the montage of artists as they prepare for the art exhibition, or when Modigliani the adult and Modigliani the child/conscience sit together on a table with their feet dangling and swaying to and fro as they study their model together. But a couple of special scenes do not make up for the over the top portrayals, the forced acting, and the melodramatic leanings. Nor do they make up for the lack of extras this DVD provides. The making of featurette basically replays a couple of scenes from the movie. Sure, there are interviews with Andy Garcia and the writer/director Mick Davis, but they contain very little insight -- unless you consider the writer/director saying that he really has a passion for Modigliani insight. Surprisingly, the one area in which this DVD does sparkle is in the sound design, using the full 5.1 channels available to place the viewer in the centre of every scene. Now if only they would have taken that same initiative with the rest of the package it might have truly been an artistic experience.
As it stands, though, the term starving artist takes on a whole new meaning.
When sitting down to watch an expected biopic, it was very disconcerting to see this statement pop up from the filmmakers before the first image even hit the screen: This is a fictional story narrating fictional events but is loosely based on the lives of the characters depicted herein. All the works are fictional and are not works of any of the artists depicted. The film is not connected with or endorsed by any of the depicted artists, their estates, descendants, or administrations in any way.
Needless to say, this did not bode well.
Having ones heart firmly in the right place does not justify the utter disregard for cohesive storytelling, embellished histories disguised as artistic license, and a total lack of respect for the medium. Guilty on all counts.
Review content copyright © 2006 Jonathan Weiss; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Making Of Featurette
* Theatrical Trailers
* Official Site