Gustav Klimt was the fin de sicle Austrian artist who founded the school of painting known as the Vienna Secession, and shocked the society of his time with his unorthodox, erotic and highly decorative works. He was a womaniser, who fathered up to 40 children before succumbing to syphilis and dying in 1918. Posters of his paintings adorn many a bedroom wall, with the seductive and sensual The Kiss his most famous creation.
And that’s probably more than you will learn than from watching this slow-moving pretentious tosh, directed by Chilean Raul Ruiz and starring John Malkovich as the bohemian artist. Well-made tosh, yes, with beautiful photography and an authentic-feeling evocation of turn of the century Vienna, but tosh nonetheless.
Malkovich is characteristically intense and the rest of the mostly heavily-accented international cast play their parts earnestly, seemingly believing that it all means something. Ruiz says it’s less a linear biopic, more a fantasy or “phantasmagoria”. Certainly, it’s full of mystery. There’s a mysterious character known as The Secretary, played by British actor Stephen Dillane, who follows Klimt around and isn’t really there. There’s a mysterious woman who Klimt lusts after (Saffron Burrows), who’s actually two women (or is it more?). And there are lots of half-heard conversations, arguments and thoughts that are, well, mysterious.
You wouldn’t expect a biopic, linear or not, about a late 19th Century artist to be without a fair amount of bare ladies and, sure enough, theres more than a smattering of peeled lovelies who decorate studios and wander around “quite terrifyingly naked”, as one of the characters points out. At least they’re not mysterious.
The film begins when Klimt is dying in 1918 and uses the well-established flashback technique to explore aspects of his life and psyche. He has a couple of punch-ups in the street, visits his sick sister and mother who are both nuts, goes to a brothel where he dresses as a monkey, meets some Chinese people who influence his style and periodically visits a doctor who shows him microscopic images of his encroaching disease.
A number of well-known historical personages pop up – Egon Schiele, Klimt’s more intense and weirder younger colleague who painted even ruder pictures than his mentor; Georges Mlis, the famous film pioneer; and was that Wittgenstein in the background arguing about Hegel and spewing out the highly memorable insult “You are making an inert proposition, my dear friend”?
The score is by the director’s fellow countryman, Jorge Arriagada, and it pays homage to the music of the time: shades of Mahler (of course), a few Wagnerian-sounding chords and just a hint of Schoenberg add to the atmosphere.
To be fair to Ruiz, he’s mixing content with form, trying to evoke the style of the artist’s paintings with his storytelling and he does succeed to some extent, although I think this movie is just a bit too arty and will have very limited appeal.