Balthus Through the Looking Glass

Balthus, Alice (1933) partial.

The film abandons criticism for adulation, neglects a consideration of his work in favor of an overblown romance, and eschews commentary by replacing it with atmosphere.

Balthus Through the Looking Glass

Director: Damian Pettigrew
Cast: Balthus, Jean Clair, François Rouan, Jean Leymarie
Length: 72
Studio: Arte
Distributor: Arte/Facets
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2008
US DVD Release Date: 2008-08-26
I can't talk about my own work. I never do. I'm a religious painter.

-- Balthus

An old man sits somewhat uncomfortably in what appears to be a comfortable chair. Perhaps senescence makes all things uncomfortable. The man is gaunt and frail. His face is wizened; he has sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. He puffs languorously at a cigarette. His wife, a small Japanese woman, brings a pot of paint to him. He remarks, in his whisper of a groaning voice, that it requires a bit of oil. She brings the oil to him and kneels before him. She holds the pot with both hands as he prepares to pour a drop of oil into it. It takes an excruciatingly long time. Her gesture is that of a supplicant. It is an offering to a high priest of art. Everything here is ceremony. The old man is the object of veneration and awe.

So opens Damian Pettigrew's award-winning 1996 film Balthus Through the Looking Glass and the adulation evinced by Balthus's wife pervades the entirety of this adoring documentary. Indeed the film adores its subject to the point that the entire project threatens to become rather overly saccharine. Of course, in 1996 Balthus (born Balthasar Klossowski de Rola in 1908) was 88 years old and far past his prime as an artist. He seemed to be near death and perhaps it was hard or would have been considered poor taste to cast too harsh a light on the man. (Remarkably, given his outrageous smoking habit for an octogenarian and the obvious frailty of his health, he lived another five years, dying on 18 February 2001.) Nevertheless, the film -- I hesitate to even call it a documentary -- abandons criticism for adulation, neglects a consideration of his work in favor of an overblown romance, and eschews commentary by replacing it with atmosphere.

That Balthus should be treated with such reserve should come as something of a surprise given the artist's output. His 1934 gallery debut featured five large paintings, all of which created something of a scandal among critics and viewers. Indeed some of Balthus's most infamous canvases come from that exhibition. Alice depicts an adult whose body is already beginning to show hints of the passing of time in the marks on her thighs, the sagging of her overly full exposed breast, and the blankness of her stare as she combs her hair. The documentary fails to mention this painting altogether, but it did not lack material on this work as is demonstrated by one of the extras included on the DVD. Three Baltusian Lessons is a set of three interviews in which a painter and two critics (all three are talking heads from the main film) each discuss specific works by Balthus. This footage looks to have been shot at the same time (although some may have been filmed later) and indeed snippets from the interviews were used in the film. However, whereas the film loses itself in soft focus, the interviews carefully, but still quite respectfully, probe the works in order to reveal their themes -- primarily the obsession with adolescent sexuality that came to dominate Balthus's work after Alice. If anything, these interviews bear witness to the fact that the film could have gone deeper without in any way condemning its subject.

The Street, perhaps Balthus's first masterpiece, depicts characters seemingly inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Fra Fillipo Lippi who wander aimlessly about a city street. A young girl beats a ball with a stick. A workingman carries a plank of wood. A woman carries a strangely adult-looking child. A young man comes up behind a young girl, reaches around her, and cups her vaginal area. This latter aspect of the painting was considered so disturbing that dealers prevailed upon Balthus to alter the painting years after its completion so that the hand now simply grabs the woman's leg. Yet, Pettigrew's film still seems to find the gesture to be too much. They show The Street but they only reveal the entire canvas for a brief moment and then focus in on various areas of the painting-pretty much every area except that which contains the offending hand. There is no mention of the alterations. Indeed, Balthus only mentions in passing (and without reference to The Street) that the fastest way to become famous at that time was to create a scandal. Then the matter is dropped.

The painting from that first gallery show that was considered the most appalling, however, was The Guitar Lesson, a painting that, unlike the others, remains fairly shocking to this day. It features a young girl suspended backwards over the knees of her female guitar instructor. The instructor pulls at the young girl's hair with one hand while the other moves toward her exposed vagina. The instructor is stern, one breast bared as the student pulls at her blouse, her nipple is hard with arousal. The young girl struggles but her face remains strangely dispassionate, her uncomfortable posture a perversion of a pietà. The painting is not shown in the main film, only a very incomplete sketch appears. It is, however, discussed in some depth in the Three Balthusian Lessons, although bizarrely the commentator, critic Jean Clair, insists that Balthus has here taken a "profane and licentious subject" and raised it toward the sacred. Now while I would propose a nearly diametrically opposed interpretation of the painting, at least in this film there is some real interpretive discussion of the work -- something that simply does not occur in Through the Looking Glass.

Instead the main film goes to severe lengths to avoid any hint of controversy. It mentions the romantic relationship Balthus's mother shared with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, but it neglects to mention that this was after Balthus's birth. Indeed the critic Jean Leymarie claims that the mother did "the best she could" in difficult circumstances when it is rather clear from biographies and her own letters that Balthus's mother treated her children alternately as playmates or nuisances. The interviews with his two grown sons pass over any unpleasantness other than a brief hint that he frightened them out of becoming painters. When Balthus mentions meeting his second wife, he immediately shuts down the conversation, claiming that he wants to avoid the personal. All of this would be just fine if the film at least attempted to give one a sense of the development of the work. But it fails to do so.

I cannot help but believe that a film that bills itself as a documentary of an artist ought either to give the viewer a clear sense of the biography of that artist or, better still, a serious understanding of the work, its critical reception (then and now), and some interpretive discussion. Certainly it was always Balthus's pose that he was painting the angelic and that he refused to discuss his work (as evidenced by the quotation used as the epigraph to this review), but a documentary ought not to shy away from such discussions. As an alternative, Balthus Through the Looking Glass claims to show us his working process. However, he does precious little in the way of work throughout the film and the painting that he is working on is -- to be frank -- derivative of his better work, a sign of decline, an old man's folly. The film does all that it can to remain reverent, adulatory, and discreet but it ends by becoming sycophantic, sanitized, and dull.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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