Klimt

[14 January 2008]

By Mehera Bonner

Raúl Ruiz’s Klimt is a truly diabolical and ill-conceived film. The first crime was making it into a movie at all, and the second, releasing it on DVD and luring unsuspecting viewers and fans of Klimt the artist into bringing it into their homes.

Klimt follows the story of Gustav Klimt (John Malkovich) in early 20th century Vienna and is told in flashbacks framed by Klimt’s death in hospital from Syphilis (believe me, you will be full of relief when he actually dies).  We trace the erosion of Klimt’s mental health through sexual obsession and the philosophical machinations of the art world, all the while ignoring any focus on his art. In fact, the greatest disappointment of the film was how little the viewer learns about Klimt’s paintings, and despite the many shots of Malkovich in an artists smock mingling with naked models, we’re given no insight into Klimt’s creative impulse and genius.

Klimt is caught up in the politics of the art world in Vienna and Paris, and feels under the threat of censorship judgment by critics and theorists. The primary question of the movie seems to be a cliché debate about what art is, form versus function, and realism versus ornamentalism. Like the impressionists, Klimt pushed the boundaries of what art could be, but the movie highlights only the sexual nature of his paintings and pays little attention to any other inspirations he may have had that didn’t have to do with having intercourse with his models.

While I’m no Klimt expert, I’ve taken a few art history courses, and still feel as though the film presumed far too much knowledge of Klimt’s life and art on the part of the viewer. It gives no background, context, or psychological insight into Klimt’s creativity, let alone his life. While a bio-pic such as Ray can certainly be too linear and chronological, and while there is some merit in the attempt to simply drop the audience into a narrow fragment of an artist’s life, in the case of Klimt the conceit does not work. The plot and dialogue are confusing and obtuse, and it’s very hard to empathize or care about Klimt’s character when the majority of viewers will go into the movie knowing little about his life and exit the movie knowing little more.

The film provides no sense as to the beauty of his work, or even as to what a great artist he was. Instead, Klimt is portrayed as a troubled free-thinker with a volatile artistic temperament who we presumably are meant to empathize with (though his only redeemable qualities in the film seem to be that he takes care of his insane mother and sister, and isn’t a racist) and he comes off as petulant and pretentious.

Klimt was known for the eroticism in his paintings, and also for his sexual liaisons, but the movie portrays him as a sex obsessed, and we are meant to look beyond how potentially disturbing it is that he is seemingly having sex with everyone with breasts (and other female attributes) who walks by, and instead see how these sexual exploits feed his art, act as his muse, and help make him into a more dynamic character. Perhaps this would have been successful, but Malkovich is so self-aware and pompous in the role, that it is hard to sympathize with him or his actions. The viewer isn’t supposed to dislike Klimt, the movie would rather have us view him as troubled and brilliant, and its failure in successfully characterizing him this way unfortunately makes both Klimt and the movie itself pretentious.

Klimt seems to be constantly running off to vomit or get a glass of water, and it doesn’t help that Malkovich, who is usually brilliant in movies such as Being John Malkovich and In The Line Of Fire over acts in Klimt to the point of extremity. Klimt certainly led a life worthy of making into a movie, but we would perhaps have been better off with a more traditional biopic than this self-indulgent art-flick that assumes too much on the part of the viewer. Klimt was a great painter, but let’s hope there aren’t too many similarities Malkovich’s portrayal of him and the real man.

The extra features on the film are nothing to get excited about, consisting only of a “making of” featurette that is almost as hard to deal with as the movie itself, although ironically you might learn a bit more about Klimt watching it than watching the movie.

Malkovich as Klimt says, “I don’t give a shit about those critics and the academics. They can take their shitty little opinions and their shitty little theories and shove them up their shitty little assholes.” This line was my personal favorite because it was as though Malkovich himself was aware of how bad Klimt, the movie, is and defends it while at the same time anticipating critics’ reviews. He certainly anticipated mine, and it should be mentioned that while he was delivering this line, he was filmed upside down and at an angle.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/klimt/