It’s a masterpiece, that’s what it is. Is it for sale?
—Bob Maccelstone (Stellan Skarsgård)
It’s not a new idea to portray the contemporary art world as profoundly venal and vacuous. Like virtually everything else, art long ago became commercial, with sales figures increasingly the barometer of artistic stature, as Andy Warhol pointed out and also exploited. So, Boogie Woogie‘s comedy of manners about the international art scene is familiar, focused as it is on indicting glamorous, glib, self-absorbed people.
Like most comedies of manners, Boogie Woogie offers a parade of character types. After a brief bit of shaky, handheld “video art,” the film opens on Art Spindle (Danny Huston). From his brilliantly white, tastefully sparse office, he looks out the window through a pair of binoculars; he’s literally looking down on everyone. Dressed in a black turtleneck and blazer, eyes shining behind thick, black-rimmed glasses, he’s marked as a cultural power broker. Behind him a neon sign—again, literally—reads, “Trust me.” That his name rhymes with “swindle” suggests the film’s level of critique.
Spindle’s assistant (Heather Graham, wide-eyed but cunning) reminds him of a Mondrian painting he’s been trying to acquire: the titular “Boogie Woogie.” The painting’s recalcitrant owner, Alfred Rhinegold (Christopher Lee), refuses to sell, even as his health fails and his bank account creeps southward. For him, the painting represents a kind of apostolic procession, because it came directly from the “hands of The Master.” He declares it his “most precious possession,” yet it’s unclear whether he values the painting as anything other than a tenuous connection to recognized genius. Whatever joy he takes in owning the painting provides a weak counterpoint to the logic of the market. “Art should not be allowed to stagnate,” Spindle declares, “There’s a price for everything. There’s always a price.”
Of course, while he haggles, his assistant plans to outbid him with the help of her rich, philandering lover, Bob (Stellan Skarsgård). With the proceeds she’ll bankroll her own gallery and eventually become a new Art Spindle. This plan allows the introduction of an ensemble cast, all trying to breathe life into cardboard characters. The jilted trophy wife (Gillian Anderson) realizes she’s no longer young. One up-and-coming artiste is a self-documentarian who interrogates everyone with her video camera; another is an installation artist who works with toy cows. Both are self-promoting womanizers eagerly crafting their personae, making their career connections.
In the world of Boogie Woogie, sex and career advancement amount to roughly the same thing. By the end of the film, nearly everyone has slept with everyone else, yet even this “decadence” comes across as cliché. Like the ubiquitous cocaine, the rampant sex does little to make a point, other than to signify the excesses of the idle rich. Even the supposed pretensions of the artists are pedestrian. One declares himself fascinated by “perception,” while the other simply takes reality television to its extreme, constantly filming herself. (See: Jennicam and We Live in Public.) Boogie Woogie may want to draw attention to the contemporary art world’s lack of ideas, but ends up reflecting this problem rather than skewering it. Perhaps worse, this predictability makes it remarkably unfunny.
One element of Boogie Woogie threatens to upend the comfortable stasis of safe decadence and casual debauchery. It concludes with a death foreshadowed from the very beginning. A more accomplished film might offer this reminder: for all the frivolity of the art marketplace, real, true, capital-A Art can still be as important as life and death. But this movie dares not risk such a morally serious claim. Here, death is only washed away by the next and final image: the toothy smile of the art dealer.