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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Artists, Part 2 (originally published 3/01)

As we saw last week, filmmakers seem to have a particular affinity for painters, if the sheer number of films about painters is any indication. The recently released "Pollock," which depicts the life of American artist Jackson Pollock, is only the latest in a long line of screen biographies of noteworthy artists.

Movies featuring painters as main characters are by no means limited to actual historical figures, however. Some of the most intriguing artists to be found on the screen never lived at all. For a sampling of filmmakers' portraits of fictional artists, look for these titles on home video.

"Portrait of Jennie" (1948). One of the most underappreciated authors of fantasy fiction, to my mind, is Robert Nathan. He wrote, for example, the novel on which the delightful Christmas classic "The Bishop's Wife" (1947) and its remake, "The Preacher's Wife" (1996), are based. His short novel, "Portrait of Jennie," was adapted for the screen by producer David O. Selznick, who had also brought "Gone With the Wind" to the screen. Nathan's story required a much smaller canvas, but no less intensity of emotion. Joseph Cotten stars as Eben Adams, a painter who feels that his work has gone stale until he meets a fascinating young woman named Jennie, played by Jennifer Jones. After each encounter, however, she unaccountably vanishes, and each time Eben sees her she seems to have aged more than he has. Somehow Eben knows that he has found in this mysterious woman the inspiration he has lacked. He paints her portrait, but as time goes by he becomes increasingly convinced that Jennie is not of his world, not of his time. And yet he is in love with her.

"An American in Paris" (1951). In MGM's tribute to the music of George Gershwin, Gene Kelly sings and dances his way through the role of an American artist trying to make a living in Paris by selling his paintings. The going is rough until a wealthy patroness (Nina Foch) takes him under her wing. Her interest in him, however, is not limited to his artistic talent. She clearly has romantic designs on him, but he in turn has been smitten by a young French gamine (Leslie Caron). The highlight of the film is the ballet sequence, built around the Gershwin piece from which the film takes its name, which was designed to reflect the style of various painters, including Renoir, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

"The Horse's Mouth" (1958). In a tour-de-force performance, Alec Guinness portrays Gully Jimson, a brilliant but eccentric artist who will go to any length to pursue his work. Scripted by Guinness himself from a book by Joyce Carey, the film is enormously amusing, and yet it deals with a serious topic in that it dramatizes the antisocial aspects of the artistic life. It is this as much as anything that may account for society's ambivalence toward artists and why funding of the arts continues to be a contentious issue.

"The Hour of the Wolf" (1968). Ingmar Bergman's fascinating meditation on the wellspring of artistic inspiration is not generally mentioned among his masterpieces, but it should be. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, two of Bergman's favorite actors, play an artist and his wife spending the summer on a secluded island. While there, each is troubled by disquieting visions. Artists must, of course, spend their lives courting such visions, but Bergman raises unsettling questions about the price that must be paid.

"La Belle Noiseuse" (1991). French filmmaker Jacques Rivette's loose adaptation of Balzac's "The Unknown Masterpiece" is based on a premise similar to that of "Portrait of Jennie." The main character is an artist who has lost his passion for his work until he meets a young woman who inspires him to take up the palette again. Rivette, however, focuses on the network of relationships that surround the creation of the painting, including the artist's wife and the model's lover, both of whom react with jealousy and suspicion.

I can't help feeling that fiction is a liberating factor in telling stories like these. It is said that Oliver Cromwell instructed his portrait artist to paint him accurately, "warts and all." There may be artists who would want their cinematic portraits created that way, but, since human flaws are the essence of drama, I imagine that creating fictional artists is, in the end, the safer way to go.

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