The Art of Passion (1994)

Erik Hinton

The Art of Passion might be the closest the film community has come to translating the impressionist style to the silver screen.

The Art of Passion

Director: Arthur Bjorn Egeli
Cast: Pablo Bryant, Isabelle Dahlin, David Ellsworth, Joe Estevez, Jessica Flannery, Aleksandra Kaniak
Distributor: Genius / Raven
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: Liberation
First date: 1994
US DVD Release Date: 2007-04-17

Impressionistic painting, of course, eschews verisimilar detail and canonical form in favor of capturing an affection. Through streaks of saturated color and particular attention paid to the reproduction of light (that metaphorical standard bearer of emotion), impressionistic art attempts to crystallize a discrete sentiment or experience and draw it forth from its viewer. Arthur Bjorn Egeli’s The Art of Passion might be the closest the film community has come to translating the impressionist style to the silver screen.

The majority of the shots, in fact, are barely discernable from the landscapes produced by the collective of artists around which the film centers. Rendered in a vivid pallete and lit to achieve strong contrast ratios, The Art of Passion is visually stunning. Egeli commands tight compositions which may be read as a 24 frames per second art school technique manual. To the director’s remarkable credit, the result showcases the advantages of method rather than engendering a rote stylistic algorithm.

The impressionism conveyed in The Art of Passion is not only limited to the visual aesthetic. Rather, the entire mise-en-scene and narrative form function to reinforce this style, as well. The dialogue is unnatural at best, the acting is overly presentational, and the plot is fantastically contrived. Anyone, who doubts these seemingly harsh generalizations need only briefly inspect the areas which I have mentioned. Characters deliver lines such as “There’s only one love that has no condition, Steve, and it’s not love of a woman, its love of creation…” to which an interlocutor responds, “That’s a sterile love, I want something more.”

Correct me if I am wrong, but interchanges such as this one occur only when “scripted” is stamped firmly upon them and a camera captures the product. Complementing such a screenplay, the actors deliver performances wrought with clenched jaws, frantic monologues. Oh, how this cast is monologue-happy. They're also heavily into “penetrating”, meaningful stares into the distance, and expressions that have forsaken subtlety on the cross of demonstrativity.

And then there’s the plot. A nubile, prodigious painter, Steve Buchanan must struggle to find his artistic voice torn in different directions by his accomplished yet anachronistic teacher, a neighboring abstract artist, and that valiant impetus within which compels him to create something new. This creative crisis is potentiated by a love drive which divides him between his model, Teresa, who is in infatuated with Steve, a fellow art student, Melissa, who admires him, and the mysterious married artist next door, Mary. Needless to say, this love quadrangle results in a morass of emotional malaise. As Steve tries to reconcile his love life with his art, the film begs the eponymous question, “How does one translate the art of passion to a canvas?”

If all of this sounds manufactured, dipping deep into that filmic barrel of affect and then painstakingly smearing the dregs across 100-odd minutes of film, that is because this is exactly what The Art of Passion does. However, surprisingly enough, it works. The campy script and acting actually transform the film into an excellent experiment in transplanting impressionism from the easel to the projector (or in this case the DVD player). The broad strokes of the performances and story applied elsewhere would appear clumsy. Here, though, they are transformed into the distinct lines and points of an impressionistic work of art. The film captures the visceral moment when the duality of an artist qua person and artist qua artist finally merge.

This is not to say the film is by any means perfect or even perfection was Egeli's intention. I referred to this film before as an experiment and that is just how it should be viewed: an interesting foray into adaptation from a non-linguistic medium. The credits inform the audience that Egeli painted the majority of the art seen in the film and this is only fitting for a work that seems to have used a canvas as a shooting script rather than a screenplay. Nevertheless, The Art of Passion is an interesting film from the mid-'90s and at least deserves the attention of film and art scholars, although its appeal can go beyond academic interest.

The special features do little to validate one’s purchase of this DVD. Firstly, the bulk of the extras comprise a photo gallery, virtual location maps, an essay by the composer, talent files, screensavers, and wallpaper. No, you did not misread. Viewers can have the pleasure of sitting down and reading a banal “essay” by the composer about how he made the score, presented on a series of obnoxiously laid out slides. I cannot think of a single time I have actually picked up a DVD and thought, “I really hope that there is plenty of static content for me to read and observe”. Photo galleries, maps, files, and especially essays should be left to the internet for die-hard fans to peruse at their pleasure and not on a DVD where they just clutter the menus and offer false hope of something actually interesting besides the feature film.

The special features are rounded out by deleted scenes and interviews. Neither are particularly interesting, although the conversation with the director is rather ironically humorous. Egeli begins by announcing that the film is semi-autobiographical, although the real stories of the three women were spread out over years, and the true-life turning points were “not that decisive”. Additionally, Egeli says he wishes his actors were more "caricatures", as if the film needed yet another unrealistic element. Indeed, it seems the special features illuminate that any brilliance of this film vis-à-vis impressionistic filmmaking was purely incidental; neither the director nor his cast appear to comprehend what they have created.

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