[7 February 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) is mad at the start of The Monuments Men, and for all kinds of good reasons. First and foremost, the Nazis are occupying her Paris, patrolling the streets and raiding homes. Second, her brother is away, “with the Resistance.” Third, she’s working for Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi), one of those movie-style odious Nazis in charge of stealing and hiding the great art of Europe, on occasion handing out individual pieces to other odious Nazis who roll through Paris in pursuit of such favors.
As Claire observes these transactions from her desk in the front office or fetches champagne for her boss, she’s keenly aware of her own oppression and the horrors that have beset her neighbors, a point underlined when she narrows her eyes in annoyance or secretly spits into Stahl’s champagne glass. Being a movie character, however, Claire is by definition less conscious of yet another reason she might be mad, which is that she’s pretty much the only woman with a speaking part in this movie, which is, after all, called The Monuments Men.
In this and in too many other ways, George Clooney’s paean to vintage WWII movies is a disappointment, more out-of-date than reverent, clunky instead of clever. Loosely based on a true story, the film focuses on the efforts of art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney, his character based on Harvard University art conservationist George Stout) to save the art that Claire’s boss means to steal. Frank convinces the US military to support his team, a jumble of buddies (fellow art historians, an architect, and a sculptor played by Jon Goodman, of all people), on a jaunt through the war zone in search of Rembrandts, Picassos, and Michelangelos. That he makes his case by way of an oddly dull and dispassionate slide show presentation, his listeners appearing as MSTK-ish shadows in theater seats, doesn’t bode well.
Once in Europe, the team divides into separate missions, with Frank jiggering a radio out of stray wires and vacuum tubes in order to maintain a semblance of connection across a series of disparate scenes. Those cast as duos have predictable dynamics: Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) trade insults, Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) come to appreciate each other’s big hearts.
While Donnie Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), a longtime friend of Frank and alcoholic Brit in need of redemption earns everyone’s respect by taking an ill-advised stand in Bruges against yet another odious Nazi, while James Granger (Matt Damon) heads to Paris, where his terrible French makes for a running gag. He hopes to persuade Claire—who is based on a real life Jeu de Paume worker named Rose Valland—to help locate particular pieces; that she’s imprisoned by the time he gets there doesn’t incline her to trust him or any other man in a uniform, as she’s come to believe that the art she loves so profoundly will not be returned to rightful owners, despite the self-named Monuments Men’s promises.
It’s not a small point, that Claire might disbelieve the Americans (or the men) as such, but the film turns it into one, by making her a lonely French lady who’s very quickly affected by James’ charms, in particular, his solemn loyalty to his unseen wife back home. They’re plainly drawn to one another in that way that olden-days WWII movie couples were, their exchanges stoic and droll: at one point she appears in the doorway to an empty apartment where James is returning a portrait, an appearance that seems wholly unmotivated and is framed as such when James spots her and observes, so very dryly, “You get around!” She has no response, of course, being a stern sort who doesn’t go in much for jokes.
Unlike you and James, she doesn’t have access to the comedy of his observation. But no mater, because you know why she’s here, in this doorway, which is to see James doing something noble in order to appreciate him, to come to trust him, and so to serve as the movie’s embodiment of the many real life, everyday European citizens who helped to save all those artistic treasures. In this role, Claire will turn out to have kept a ledger of all the art passing through Stahl’s office, named and numbered and color-coded, a ledger she hands over to James while cautioning him to take care with it, because it is “my life.”
While this ledger/life is a helpful plot point, The Monuments Men makes another use of Claire in the doorway, which is point out its own awkward plotting and illogical characterizations, to point out that it’s a movie, and indeed, a movie with a sense of humor about itself. In this it recalls those movies John Ford or John Huston used to make, so they might gather together their buddies at a location and make sophisticated, in-jokey, entertaining art. The buddies were men, their exploits legendary among themselves; even if they sometimes brought along Vera Miles or Katharine Hepburn, the men focused their movies on what men did.
That’s not to say the movies were historically accurate or tried very hard to be; the pop culture of the time reflected and sustained the notion that men and women were different and unequal. Today’s movies also exist in contexts, and so too, they reflect and reinforce those contexts. The men in The Monuments Men, much like the men in ‘40s movies, embody traditional values and emotional touchstones during their episodic travels, their shared moments heroic and comedic, sentimental and honorable, all while they’re also men you might recognize today, men who can make keen fun of themselves and each other, men who get the political points they represent and the jokes they so entertainingly embody. The woman in The Monuments Men doesn’t get to do any of that.