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Christian Schwochow’s Paula and Marcie Begleiter’s Eva Hesse, reviewed Add to ...

Eva Hesse

Written and directed by Marcie Begleiter

Starring Selma Blair and Bob Balaban

Classification PG; 108 minutes

1 star

Paula

Directed by Christian Schwochow

Written by Stefan Kolditz and Stephan Suschke

Starring Carla Juri and Albrecht Schuch

Classification 14A; 123 minutes

2.5 stars

During a recent repertory viewing of the Archers’ 1948 backroom ballet melodrama The Red Shoes, I was struck by one thing (apart from the enduring charm of Anton Walbrook’s consummately villainous turn as a megalomaniacal, love-hating theatre impresario). The film’s extensive central set piece, a wordless, all-danced adaptation of Han Christian Andersen’s bizarro fairy tale The Red Shoes, remains remarkably more radical than the film itself. It’s a hallucinatory, surreal, proto-Lynchian flight of fantasy, equal parts reverie and nightmare, wedged smack in the middle of an otherwise largely conventional mid-century British drama. It’s a consummate – perhaps the consummate – case of a film about art expressing that art in the full breadth of its weirdness and wonder.

Most films about art and artists, the subject of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s ongoing “Film + Art” screening series, struggle to do the same. Two recent “Art + Film” titles, Christian Schwochow’s biopic Paula and Marcie Begleiter’s doc Eva Hesse, feel hemmed in by convention, unable to sufficiently dramatize (or even depict) the professed radicalism and importance of their subjects.

The better of the two is Schwochow’s study of Paula Modersohn-Becker (Carla Juri), an early expressionist painter historically distinguished as the first female painter to have an entire museum devoted to her work. One need not be familiar with her art-world bona fides to groan a bit at how heavily Schwochow and writers Stefan Kolditz and Stephan Suschke stack the deck against her. The film’s first act, which sees the young artist rapturous and in love in a mid-19th-century rural German painter’s colony, shows Modersohn-Becker repeatedly chided with warnings that women quite simply don’t make good artists. “Women will never produce anything creative, apart from children,” barks the colony’s commandant Fritz Mackensen (Nicki von Tempelhoff), a German painter who joined the Nazi party in the late 1930s.

Her talent and resolve also scrape up against her lover, Otto Modersohn (Albrecht Schuch), whose chilly cruelty towards Paula proceed as much from his fear of loss as a sense of envious competitiveness. Paula offers a fine, feminist portrait of a young woman making her way in the world – finding its surest footing when Paula decamps from Germany to study in Paris – but fails to fully put across the range and uniqueness of its subject’s gifts. (The film itself, realized in a deep, rich colour palette, is suitably painterly.)

Where Paula feels merely conventional, Eva Hesse’s rundown of the life and work of its titular American post-minimalist sculptor is downright dreary. Overstuffed with biographical details and taking-head interviews with friends and hangers-on, it’s over-didactic and dull.

Eva Hesse plays like bad PBS or (perhaps more cynically) like a film commissioned by collectors of Hesse’s art to drum up her reputation and, in turn, the perceived market value of her work. Perhaps such talky, gratingly explanatory legwork is necessary to explain the output of an artist who produced fibreglass stumps, empty frames and installations of messy tangles of yarn. But watching it is like reading the contextual, essayistic plaques attempting to make intelligible the work at any contemporary art gallery. The explanations themselves are so oblique and eye-rolly that they feel like part of the art – or part of a larger joke.

There’s an adage (variously attributed to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Martin Mull and a half-dozen others) that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Using one medium to give expression to another reveals their fundamental incompatibility. Something of the art is, almost invariably, lost in translation. Filmmaking about expressionist painting, or postminimalist yarn hanging, produces much the same effect. Anyone seriously interested in the work of major visual artists may do better actually hauling themselves to an art gallery. Luckily, the AGO has one of those, too.

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