No, Claude Monet couldn't do a good Humphrey Bogart, but Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says he's still one of the great Impressionists.
"We saw the world afresh, but for a long time, the world didn't seem to understand us. The Impressionists, they called us. We were painters of water, of light, of color. We were of our own time, yet beyond it."—Claude Monet
Can you tell Monet from Manet from Mamet? If the answer is no, you'll probably lose on Jeopardy. You'll also need to brush up on your art history.
Claude Monet, known as the Father of Impressionism, was born in 1840 Paris. As a youth, Monet did caricatures, then learned to paint outdoors. He and a group of artist friends, who included Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and Edgar Degas, became known as the Impressionists. While they may be respected today for their influence on art, their name was coined in Le Charivari, the antecedent of Britain's Punch, as their work faced official and critical hostility. As depicted in this drama, Monet's portraits of train stations, water lilies, and haystacks captured fleeting moments on canvas. He's often seen working quickly to take advantage of light or a shifting scene, thus his work is rougher than what was being done in studios at the time.
Just who were The Impressionists? This three-hour drama, drawn from "records, letters, and interviews of the time," hopes to answer that question, giving you an impression of the personalities behind the paintings.
Facts of the Case
A reporter arrives at the home of artist Claude Monet (Julian Glover, Scoop) to interview the legend about his early life, sparking a recollection of the art class in which he met Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Charlie Condou) and Frédéric Bazille (James Lance, Rescue Me). Renoir helps him out right away, sneezing a hint his way as the instructor shoots him a tough question. Young Monet (Richard Armitage, Robin Hood) learns that he won't be painting for a while, since he must learn to sketch, then study the color palette.
When he sketches a man with big feet—just because the artists' model actually has big feet—his instructor is furious. "Nature is a means to an end. A masterpiece borrows from a hundred imperfect models," the instructor instructs.
Monet isn't impressed. "I have just seen the future. You know something? You're not in it," he responds.
Meanwhile, Edouard Manet (Andrew Havill) is having his own problems, since his work, if it's even shown, is receiving resounding criticism. Art, you see, sends out France's cultural message to the world, and you can't send concubines in the woods out to the world as a cultural message.
"Paris is full of asses who won't let me paint what I see," Manet rants to a friend.
The penniless Monet makes a life-changing decision when he spots a woman buying fresh fruit at the market and asks her to pose for a painting, Woman in a Green Dress. It brings Monet his first meeting with Manet, who is upset because he's getting the compliments on it, even though it's some other artist. "A fine painting. So fine it was mistaken for one of mine," Manet greets Monet. It's a relatively calm, polite greeting, since Monet could have been challenged to a duel. The painting also forces Monet to make an important moral decision, since model Camille is about to have their child and Monet's father wants him to abandon the woman and baby.
The focus on art history, rather than melodrama, is established early as you notice the artistic framing of shots—a man silhouetted against the sky, fruit in a market, and lush greenery by the water—even before you meet the character. These shots resemble paintings and bring to mind the natural world Claude Monet re-created in art. Throughout the story, the cameras pause to linger over works of art, with the name of the painting and artist emblazoned on the screen. The dialogue between Monet and the reporter provides the opportunity for artistic lessons, as Monet asks his visitor to close his eyes, then explain what he sees when he looks at a bunch of flowers.
As is common to fact-based dramas about complicated lives, The Impressionists moves at a fast clip, probably too fast. Monet's consideration of whether to marry Camille and be cut off from his family seems perfunctory, as does Bazille's death in the Prussian war, commemmorated by a brief outburst of mourning from Renoir to a model. The drama takes a few opportunities, though, to flesh out the characters. The story behind a Bazille painting that shows Monet in bed recuperating from a freak accident after a venture into the woods to paint provides some comic relief, but also hints that the act of leaving the studio to paint in a real environment was revolutionary in the art world of 1860s Paris.
The acting's not bad, though the historical personages are often reduced to one note: Renoir as womanizer, Bazille as dutiful good guy, and a Minister of Art as a vessel of snide, cutting remarks. The third episode devotes much of its running time, though, to Paul Cézanne, a shy man who didn't find the success he sought in life but inspired Picasso and Matisse; Cézanne's screen time is dominated by his reconciliation with his father and the dissolution of his friendship with Emile Zola. The two actors who play Monet—Julian Glover and Richard Armitage—are the visual embodiment of the artist, both imbuing their performances with a passion that brings the dry facts of his life alive.
The location shooting, with cinematography that purposely blurs the line between the paintings and the places that inspired them, is simply beautiful. They remind us how the Impressionists were stirred by the world's natural beauty into actions that revolutionized art. You'll be left wanting more, though, since a lot of the conversations which make up this movie take place in drawing rooms, smoky taverns, and studios. The dialogue and classical music of the soundtrack come across well.
The documentary, "Claude Monet: Painter of Light," fills in the blanks with the dates, names, and places of Monet's life, so that viewers learn what they lost in some rushed scenes in the drama. It devotes most of its 52-minute running time to Monet's art itself. Curiously, though it shows quite a few of Monet's works, it moves through them too fast and doesn't let us know exactly what we're seeing; the drama lingered over the paintings it showcased, with captions on the screen giving the name of the work. As a supplement to The Impressionists, the documentary works well, but the French production only briefly touches on the art world's initial reluctance to embrace Impressionism.
The bare backs of artists' models are seen often here, though further nudity is shown only in the final artworks. There's also lots of talk about mistresses.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While this drama makes an excellent art lesson, the educational aspects overshadow the actual drama quite a bit. This won't be light entertainment if you're not interested in art and the background of the Impressionists.
It seems absurd today, but to see the works of Claude Monet and his fellow Impressionists mocked, kept out of official exhibitions, and even censored because they were doing something new made me appreciate them all the more, as did France's emphasis on glorifying the nation through art. When these men boldly followed their convictions, they made the world a more beautiful place and paved the way for artistic movements to follow. It's that conviction, even more than the art itself, which makes The Impressionists fascinating. This drama based on real events will make you think about art and our reactions to it.
Not guilty. This drama definitely makes a good impression.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• "Painter of Light" Documentary on Claude Monet
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