Judge Daryl Loomis thinks living in Vienna in 1900 would be great...but the syphilis is kind of a turnoff.
Portrait of an artist as a horny old man.
Gustav Klimt (John Malkovich, Dangerous Liaisons), one of the most renowned artists in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century, lies dying in his hospital bed. Syphilis has infected his brain, and in the final moments of his life, Klimt begins spouting out the visions from his haunted fever dreams. Director Raúl Ruiz (Time Regained) takes us inside these dreams to represent the final years of a true master of the canvas. Not a true biography—the events of these final years never actually happened—this Klimt is pure fiction. Ruiz tries to present Klimt both as an interesting biographical subject and as the idealization of the artist's world. This is a difficult balancing act that proves better in theory than in practice.
Facts of the Case
Klimt arrives in Paris for the World's Exposition of 1900 where he meets film pioneer Georges Méliès, who shows Kilmt his latest film, about a beautiful dancer who meets the man who will next paint her. Herr Klimt stands in amazement to see that this painter is…Klimt himself! He is awed by the technology, but more so when he meets the dancer: Lea de Castro (Saffron Burrows, Deep Blue Sea). He falls instantly and, when she asks him to paint her portrait for her wealthy, aristocratic husband, he can hardly refuse. She becomes his love, his muse, and the ruin of his life. His obsession over her destroys every relationship he had and eventually, his mind (I thought it was syphilis, but who's counting). The final 18 years of Klimt's life show an artist at his creative best and his mental worst, all mixed into the crazy world of turn-of-the-century Europe.
I wish that the reality of an artist's life was how Ruiz describes it in Klimt. All those trips to France, bedding your models, and smearing cake in your enemies' faces sounds like a great time. Maybe I should try painting, because writing hasn't gotten me anywhere close. An honest biography of an artist would feature a lot of frustration and a lot of sitting around, but that wouldn't make a very good movie. I see why it's necessary to spice up the action, but I'm not sure why it has to be entirely fabricated. If Klimt's life wasn't exciting enough write a screenplay about, why use his name at all? I guess they already had rights to the paintings. Some fabrication in a biopic is natural to move the story along, but Ruiz uses the fictional story not to show us Klimt's life directly, but a more abstract view of the life of an artist. This is a good concept, but Ruiz doesn't take it far enough. He tries to give the film the appearance of a biography while still maintaining a romantic mystery and keeping its artistic pretensions.
Klimt is an appealing figure, and Malkovich's performance is slimy in a way that only he can do, but the character doesn't feel complete. Occasionally, he speaks of how much his mother "sees to." He clearly depends on her for a lot of day to day functions. Yet, in the one scene where we meet her, she is a crazy old woman whom Klimt must care for more than the other way around. The film is built on the pretense that Klimt was a great artist, but we spend very little time with his art; only in the opening credits and a brief gallery scene do we see any of his paintings. For the film's obsession with art, it shies away from showing the method or the final product, instead describing the making of art as a way into a woman's bed.
The strongest aspect of Klimt is also what falls the hardest, only because it had so much potential. While these 18 years spin out, Klimt's disease spreads (he's aware of it the whole time) as his relationship with Lea de Castro becomes more mysterious. With all these memories being told from an insane man's hospital bed, the flashbacks become more fragmented and abstract, the colors more vibrant, and the music more violent. The final scenes are over the top and do a good job portraying a crazy man on film. It is inventive, artistically driven, and would have been intelligently done had it been given a better build-up. The change is subtle throughout the film but then, all of a sudden, the story shifts into the abstract. It felt like I'd missed something. As it turns out, I was right. For some reason, nearly 30 minutes have been cut from the film for this release. It debuted at 131 minutes at the Berlin and Rotterdam film festivals, and this was the release that premiered in America. While I don't know if uncut version is any better, I can't fathom why Koch Lorber would release the edited version. I would definitely watch an uncut version just to see if my myriad questions about the story could get answered, but I have a hard time believing that the film would warrant a double dip, so we're stuck with what we have.
From a technical standpoint, the DVD is very good. The colorful costumes and sets, extremely important to the atmosphere of the film, are brilliant in the transfer. The print is very clean and free from defect, as it should be for a new film. The surround sound mix immerses the viewer in the busy world of early twentieth century Europe; ambient noise comes from all sides constantly, though the dialogue is very clear. The main extra is a short feature on the making of the film. It shows some of the painstaking efforts that went into creating an immersive experience; from the costuming and set design to creating "original" Klimts from pictures and notes. It's an impressive amount of work for what we have as the final result. If only we had the chance to see more of it.
What was an interesting concept turned into a convoluted mess both by the meddling of editors and the filmmakers' over exuberance. The look of the film and the performances are all fine, but until a complete version of the film is released, I see no reason to recommend it.
Those involved in the production of Klimt are free to go. They may
have failed in their attempts to make an artistic biopic, but at least they
tried. I can't say the same about Koch Lorber. Their laziness in presenting this
truncated film is inexcusable. For shame, for shame.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• "Making of" featurette
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