“Never believe you’ve played your last hand,” instructs Jean Marc Calvet. “Never believe it’s too late, never believe that things will never work out.” Under his voiceover, you see Calvet walking into the frame, in slow motion. His sunglasses obscure his eyes, his bald head and hoop earrings overwhelming as he fills the frame, obscuring the traffic behind him.
As an introduction to the French-Nicaraguan painter, these first few moments of Calvet suggest his intensity, his determination, his capacity for self-reflection, They are also the last moment in Dominic Allan’s movie that moves so slowly, literally. From here on out, the pace is propulsive, as Calvet takes you on a journey through his past, passing by his present, and into his possible future. And the camera does its best to keep up with him.
Screening Stranger Than Fiction on 5 November, where it will be followed by a Q&A with Allan, Calvet offers examples of the artists’ work, colorful, aggressive, unusual paintings that seem like glimpses into the troubled soul he goes on to describe, in some detail. He describes his childhood, his life on the street, his drug use and his gangsterism, his ambitions and his failures, his violent behavior, and, again and again, his abandonment of his son, almost two decades ago. For much of the film, Calvet leads you on a look back, driving and traipsing through old haunts in the south of France, in Nicaragua, in Costa Rica, where he lives now. Pointing out sites of transformation, he remembers his desperation and his first leap into art, painting all the walls and ceilings he cold find, as if his life depended on it.
Calvet also imagines a new life ahead, hoping to reconnect with his son, to ask forgiveness, to offer his experience and his feelings—raw, urgent, self-invested—as instruction and cautionary tale. This isn’t to say he quite forgives himself, but he can’t give up, he can’t stop. The film is a remarkable portrait, convincing and performative, insistent and expressive, and ever incomplete.