Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Portrait Of The Artist is everything I’ve been looking for in a movie. It’s beautiful, problematic, boring, alienating, dryly comical, up its own ass at times (and fully aware of it) and thought provoking all at once. It's an ode to modern French cinema in the same way that Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep was (there’s even an Irma Vep reference in the film). Not only does Portrait Of The Artist feature Irma Vep co-star Alex Descas (as himself in two brief scenes), but it’s also about the filmmaking process in the same way Assayas’ film was.

In Portrait, Bertrand Bonello pretty much plays himself – an art house director named "Bertrand". He’s currently in the pre-production process of his latest film, centered around monsters & classic art, and is having a difficult & strange time both in his personal life and his work life. He’s struggling to find motivation; one of his pre-production assistants (played by Jeanne Balibar) is kind of crazy and she's making the pre-production process more difficult than it needs to be, and he has a growing rash on his back.
Although this film is fictional, it’s still obviously based in reality. Besides the fact that Bonello & co-stars Alex Descas, Pascal Gregory & Isild Le Besco all play slightly fictional versions themselves, the (fictitious) films & perversions within Portrait Of The Artist are a direct reflection of Bonello’s own real work. The (fictitious) film Bonello is working on deals with transformation in the same way his (actual) film Tiresia does (the story of a transgendered woman making the reluctant transition back to a man). The sexual escapades in Portrait are reminiscent of certain moments in Bonello’s House Of Tolerance and The Pornographer.
This definitely falls in line with other fictional/non-fictional hybrids like The Trip, Tristram Shandy or The Player.

A major subplot in this film is about the appreciation of art. Half the scenes in Portrait involve the characters strolling through French museums, quietly observing and taking in what they see (part of Bertrand's pre-production process in the movie requires him to study classic art).

This movie reminded me of a recent trip I took to the Philadelphia Museum Of Art where I saw various pieces that clearly influenced some of my recent favorite French films...

Marcel Du Champs / Bruno Dumont

After watching this I genuinely felt the urge to go visit a museum. The creepiness & haunting qualities within the artwork featured in this movie are really accentuated (in Portrait, Bernard is looking to draw inspiration from non-traditional classical art portraits for the "monster" in his movie)

"Portrait de Tonetta"
"Child With Vitiligo"
"The Nightmare"

For quite some time I’ve been looking for a great movie with minimal talking and Portrait Of The Artist definitely answered my prayers. I mean think about it – why should there be a whole lot of talking in a movie about the appreciation of art? Art certainly needs to be discussed & talk about, but sometimes you need to be quiet in order to appreciate it. There's plenty of wordy dialogue in this but there are also just as many moments of silence.

Portrait Of The Artist adds a whole ‘nother subconscious layer of filmmaking. Bertrand Bonello did not direct this (it was directed by Antoine Barraud) yet it still feels like one of his films in the same way that the John Cassavetes-starring Mikey & Nick feels like a Cassavetes film even though he didn’t direct it. I'm struggling with this because I don't know if Antoine Barraud has a cinematic voice of his own, or if he’s a little too influenced by Bonello and trying to copy his style (the exploration into the filmmaking process that we see in Portrait Of The Artist is very reminiscent of Bertrand’s 2002 film The Pornographer). And of course if you’re influenced by the cinema of Bertrand Bonello, you’re indirectly influenced by the cinema of Robert Bresson. And that’s not to say he is in anyway a “Bresson-Clone”. He’s definitely influenced by the legendary filmmaker but Bertrand is definitely his own person (plus Robert Bresson would never make films about kidnapped transgendered prostitutes or tales about struggling French porn directors).

This film also relates to this blog on multiple levels. Not only have I written about Bertrand Bonello’s work quite a bit on here, but I also conducted a brief interview with him years ago. Naturally the presence of Alex Descas reminds me of the cinema of Claire Denis as he’s her most frequent collaborator (he’s also appeared in quite a few Assayas films and Bertrand's own film Tiresia). Seeing both Pascal Gregory & Geraldine Pailhas show up in Portrait reminded of PINNLAND EMPIRE favorite Lodge Kerrigan as they both co-starred in his last feature; Rebecca H: Return To The Dogs (2010) – a film that continues to evade me (it’s pretty rare and virtually unseen outside of its Cannes screening). The subplot about the growing rash on Bertrand’s back (and his newfound fascination with his body) reminded me of Marina De Van’s In My Skin (in the early 2000's Bertrand & Marina were often mentioned in the same reviews together as they were both varsity-lettermen of the New French Extremity movement). Another subplot in Portrait Of The Artist deals with Bertrand befriending a film critic which naturally hits home with me as I’ve become friends/buddies with some of the actors, actresses & filmmakers I’ve written about on here over the years like Alice Houri (a former collaborator of Bertrand Bonello). And this isn't a brag but years ago I was at the Toronto Film Festival the same time as Bertrand Bonello and we tried to make plans to meet up but it didn't work out. I'm not ashamed to admit that it would be cool for me to hang out with him. I'm a big fan. I'd love to hang out with the guy responsible for The Pornographer & House Of Tolerance (although I certainly wouldn't do what the fictitious film critic character in Portrait Of The Artist does in order to hang out with Bertrand. I'll say that much...)

I don't recommend this movie to everyone (in fact, there are only two or three people I can think of who would enjoy this) but for what its worth, this is the best thing I’ve seen so far this year.


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