Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A scintillating art market tale

Reviews, listed in the order I saw the films, from the 14th edition of the Windsor International Film Festival, which continues until Sunday.

American Animals (Bart Layton, 2018) is the re-creation of an actual heist that took place in 2004 at a Lexington KY university. Four students, a little too bored with their lives and seeking some kick ass experience, decide to rob a couple of the most famous books of all time – John James Audubon's The Birds of America and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But their ambition is only matched by their incompetence, with the real-life foursome making interwoven appearances to comment on their audacity or stupidity. The film’s dramatic action is good, but the plot and takeaway don’t transcend the pedestrian act of the thievery it depicts.

Le Brio (Yvan Attal, 2017) is a welcome breaking of the mold of political correctness in filmmaking. Daniel Auteuil plays professor Pierre Mazard and Camélia Jordana as law student Neïla Salah. Mazard is an outspoken very politically incorrect teacher, and mocks Salah for her race and religion in front of a class of hundreds, to whistles and boos. He’s called up before a disciplinary panel. Meanwhile, he chooses Salah to coach for a national debating championship and turns the young woman from a rough-around-the-edges slacker to an articulate learned graduate, well trained for the legal profession. She indeed becomes fond of him. Is this all a charade? The film’s main problem is that it is formulaic. The second is that, in today’s higher education world, such a figure as Mazard probably wouldn’t keep teaching beyond his first transgression.

Radiance (Naomi Kawase, 2017) is a story of understanding and love between two people – a budding filmmaker Misaki (Ayame Misaki) and a famous photographer, Masaya (Masatoshi Nagase) who has all but lost his sight. She works on films for visually impaired people and, a member of a review committee, he bluntly criticizes some of her techniques. Yet she grows to appreciate his vast catalogue of photography and the sensitivity he’s brought to his craft, while giving at times as good as she gets. This nuanced film’s plot slowly develops, sometimes relentlessly so, though there are piquant moments of human tenderness and connection.

The Price of Everything (Nathaniel Kahn, 2018) is a film about today’s art market and how art - especially the contemporary variety and among a certain group of shall we say elite artists – has become an over the top multi-million dollar business. Kahn interviews some of the top people in this world – from artists themselves such as Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter and Larry Poons to collectors like Stefan Edlis (photo left) – who has amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in his Chicago high rise – to dealers and auction house specialists like Amy Cappellazzo of Sotheby’s. You might think the film is a predictable critique of conspicuous consumption among the one per cent, some of whom buy art like they buy stocks. But it treads a fine line, with buyers like Edlis acknowledging his consumption but evaluating his collection like an art critic. A case is even made for capitalist art acquisition – is it better for a painting to at least be seen and appreciated, and therefore kept alive, than descend into a museum’s basement vaults and be put on display every 20 years? Deftly edited, this is a mesmerizing documentary that presents all sides of the argument, and that both does and doesn’t take modern art too seriously, still asking the age old question, "Is this art?"

Claire Darling (Julie Bertuccelli, 2017) stars the venerable Catherine Deneuve as an aging dowager who one day has a revelation and decides to sell all her mansion’s belongings. The objects, many rare paintings, furniture and crafts - and emblematic of various stages in her life – should be sold at a fine art house auction and not at a common yard sale. Her estranged daughter Chiara (Chiara Mastroianni), hearing about this, quickly returns home and tries to stop it. The film attempts an interesting study of mother-daughter relations (each proves stubborn and selfish) and Deneuve, as usual, is great. Yet it remains unsatisfying: could the depiction of the relationship have been fleshed out more, and what is behind Claire’s abrupt decision-making – mental illness, dementia?

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