Joseph Jon Lanthier: Hello and welcome to Film or Faux, a new podcast about aesthetics, forgeries, and failures. For this first installment we’re going to be talking about recently departed director Raúl Ruiz, two of his films. Or one film and one faux, I should say. My name is Joseph Jon Lanthier, I write about film for Slant Magazine, Box Office Magazine, Documentary Magazine. I’m talking today with Marisa Nakasone. She is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago’s master’s program in humanities and is now a curatorial Yale fellow working in their prints, drawings, and photographs department. The two films that we’re going to be talking about of Ruiz’s—it’s kind of an interesting double bill. A short film from 1978 called The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting is the first one. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s essentially a protracted conversation between an off-screen art critic and an art collector who has in his collection a cycle of paintings that are very elusive and caused a scandal at the time of their release, the details of which have since been obscured. Within the film, the collector leads us through this cycle of paintings, discussing in particular the “lost” or “stolen” fourth painting of the title. And there’s a lot of rumination over what exactly that painting contained.
The other film we’re going to be discussing is Ruiz’s biopic about Gustav—his name is Gustav, isn’t it?
Marisa Sae Nakasone: Uh-huh.
JJL: Gustav Klimt, the painter. It’s kind of a quasi-biographical piece; there’s a lot of bizarre interludes and narrative jaggedness. We see in particular what seems to be the latter half of Klimt’s life, after he’s risen to prominence in the European modernist art scene, and it details his relationship with this woman [Lea de Castro]—a courtesan or mistress—the film makes her out to be this muse, and a symbol for the limits that art has when representing “true life,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.
So The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. I really liked the cadence of this film, the look of it. It’s about 66 minutes long and it was shot by Resnais’s frequent collaborator Sacha Vierny. There’s a lot of very harsh light reflecting off of smoke and off of mirrors. It has a very claustrophobic feel to it because the art collector is leading us through his collection and through his house, where he’s staged out each of the paintings in this cycle that he’s describing. And he uses models to stage the paintings so he can manipulate them…there’s a kind of Da Vinci Code-esque manipulation of elements that goes on so he can show us thematic and formal links between the paintings. I liked the general aesthetic of the film and thought it a fascinating conversation between film and criticism and painting, where you have these characters who are very besotted with painting, and ostensibly this is just a recording of their conversation, a presentation of a critical stance—but I think that gets synthesized into a kind of film-grammatical statement too. In a way that I think elucidates the way that painting has influenced cinema in interesting ways.
MSN: I think it was interesting that the paintings in question in this movie, they were supposed to have been painted in the late 19th century. And at that time with photography there was this kind of crisis of representation, and to what extent photography and painting could talk to one another. The paintings that the collector was ruminating on aren’t overtly photographic. But this creates an interesting reflexive moment with cinema and the film still. And the various framing devices that occur in the man’s house/dream space. It’s his interior mind, a place he occupies—which is why the external narrator felt very out of body or not entirely present in the same psychic space as the collector.
JJL: That’s a really interesting point you make about the connection between photography and painting in the sense of when these paintings would have ostensibly been made. There’s one painting that actually contains multiple paintings; it’s this step-by-step depiction of scenes from The Marquis of O, which supposedly, within the fiction of this film, caused a scandal by depicting people of affluence in what are very low or very vulgar stances and postures and also dramatic situations. But the paintings themselves are very sketchy; they’re almost daguerreotype-ish. There’s a primitivism to them that obviously isn’t supposed to be entirely representational; it’s not supposed to reflect what those people would have looked like in real life.
MSN: They do sort of look like daguerreotypes. The posturing is very theatrical, it looks like the kind of pose you’d have to hold for a minutes-long exposure time that you’d have for these late-19th-century cameras. It’s interesting that there’s this narrative from panel to panel, but also this very rigid posturing and gesturing.
JJL: Which I think is supposed to be a class comment, the rigidity. Or within the context of the film it’s supposed to be a class comment. But what I find interesting there is that the paintings are in a way showing the limitations of photography. Because obviously photography can’t render situations that are fictional. Or, better put, or you can’t take pictures of people that don’t exist. And that’s sort of the space that the painting fills. And in a greater sense that’s the purpose that the film is serving, or that this exploration of this cycle is serving. Because the art collector can’t stage out a painting that doesn’t exist. So the narrative—or the rhetoric, because the film is sort of faux-expository—is supposed to be giving us this ineffable sense of what the missing painting was supposed to have contained.
MSN: Now that you’ve spoken a little bit about this hypothetical stolen painting that the collector is trying to lead us to, and get us to imagine, I think it has this…maybe I’m just really into Lacan. But it struck me as this ineffable, un-representable feeling at the center around which representation grows and develops. This ineffable core is the impetus for language and representation. It’s beyond our threshold, but it’s also extremely productive. That’s what I think when we’re revolving around—running circles around this un-represented idea, this hypothetical idea. It’s a very vertiginous effect, which I thought was nicely echoed in the mirror-like, funhouse interior space—the built environment of the collector’s home. I think that directly engages with the idea that this is an interior space of his mind. The [staging] figures collectively occupy this space and it’s almost as if he’s the puppeteer.
JJL: And what I find interesting about this is, despite all the creativity and obsessive energy that he exerts trying to understand the connection between these paintings, and also by extension what that missing painting contains, I really felt like it was a rhetorical dead end. At the end of the film I thought that his reading of the final painting was the most disappointing. It all turns into this trope, the Gnostic cult of the androgyne. Which makes sense within the context of the film, since they’re trying to explain the scandal that these paintings provoked. But for the collector, I had a hard time parsing his…his “final answer,” “final interpretation” of these paintings, of this cycle. For it to be such a closed circuit with this underlying Gnosticism. I thought it was really strange. The only thing I could really do with it was to read him as a repressed homosexual or something…
MSN: It is mystic; it’s a symbolist image. Very strange and effusive.
JJL: It’s about satyrism. I found that really reductive. It was a strange turn for the film to make.
MSN: It was strange. I thought the whole kernel of the film was that section where he talks about the liaisons between the Marquis and the Marquise. That was an interesting meditation on narrative. Because the story was very convoluted, as was the use of anonymous initials and the similarities in titles—“Marquis” and “Marquise”—when he was running through the story it made it very difficult to follow and it made the luridness sort of irrelevant. It kind of reminded me of Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, in which the narrative or description of what’s going on is not important. You enjoy being carried along by the narrative in a way that’s not driven by description. But I thought that section was the most interesting part of the movie…and the discussion of the last painting, with the androgynous spirit, felt sort of…not convenient, but disappointing. Anticlimactic.
JJL: Ok, so Klimt. We can probably spend less time on Klimt.
MSN: Klimt: I did not like it. I don’t think Gustav Klimt is a very interesting painter; I think he was a good business man. I should—full disclosure—I’ve never studied Klimt. But I’m not terribly interested in his work. I think it’s decorative. I think part of my fatigue of Klimt is due to the fact that he’s so popular. I feel like this movie was like staring at a mousepad of “The Kiss” for two hours. And I found John Malkovich’s Klimt to be pretty insufferable. I was telling Jon earlier that I don’t think that this movie even needed to be about Klimt. In many ways John Malkovich’s character didn’t feel personal to me, he seemed like a stock American fantasy of a 19th-century flaneur-painter persona.
JJL: Malkovich’s portrayal of Klimt felt very American-ized to me. He was the only one that didn’t have a lame European accent or any of these 19th-century affectations. He was very much playing up the American “other” in the same way that he does in, say, Ripley’s Game, or several other films where he literally is the American “other.” Only here he was a German painter, so it didn’t make any sense.
I felt like the use of Klimt’s color palette was ridiculously reductive. The “mousepad of “The Kiss” is a good point because they borrow his burnt, earthen golds and browns. But I didn’t see a whole lot of the fluidity of his sketches, which to me are far more compelling than his paintings; they look really nervous in a way that I like. And his paintings evince this kind of ornamental clutter that the film didn’t even really approach.
MSN: It didn’t really engage with his painting. While the movie was ostensibly more interested in Klimt the artist, they made Klimt the artist not interesting to watch at all; I wasn’t invested in what happens to him.
JJL: Through the whole thing there’s this notion of…he’s using models for actual individuals, models that are lookalikes, so there’s this doubling trope. But it doesn’t really feel pulled from Klimt’s work in a way that’s accessible to us. It’s more just a general rumination on the difficulty of art representing life…or “Can an individual’s essence be contained in an artwork more than in their actual self?”…or some banal psychological reading of an artwork or an artist.
MSN: It was kind of like a turn-of-the-century greatest hits. We had an appearance by Georges Méliès…
JJL: I liked that, actually.
MSN: They could have gotten a lot of mileage out of his magicianhood—the doubling and concealing and the smoke and mirrors and the way he used the film camera. That might have been interesting, though it could have also been pretty cliché, and I’m sure it would have been cliché had it been attempted in this movie. It seemed like a lot of ideas that had a lot of potential fell very flat. Oh, and Egon Schiele made an appearance, which I don’t know why he was important other than to signal that oh! This is a biopic. And Klimt knew Schiele, and maybe he was kind of like a protégé. I will say one thing, the guy really looked like Egon Schiele.
JJL: And the framing device with Schiele didn’t make any sense, with Klimt dying in the hospital. All the transitions between that where it was like: Oh, there’s a mirror on the ceiling and then, oh, we’re 30 years earlier in his studio or something; all those transitions felt really clunky to me.
MSN: It was sort of like Klimt-as-8½. Only not as good.
JJL: Which, again, that kind of surrealism—I call it “paint by numbers surrealism”—doesn’t make any sense if you’re talking about Klimt. He’s not a surrealist per se. I wouldn’t consider his work at all surreal. I think he sort of traffics in, as they make very clear in the film again and again, allegorical surfaces, but they’re not surreal. So it was an odd choice, that abstraction.
It’s interesting how it sort of caresses the limitations that art has in reflecting on itself, maybe. And in the earlier film we have this very intricate, very meticulously designed scenario that unfolds with a great deal of patience and a great deal of rhetorical aplomb. And despite that sort of neatness it still is kind of wobbly and almost falls apart at the end. But it gets at a cinematic truth: Sometimes you can say a lot about yourself criticizing something else. Maybe you can get at the essence of what you are all about, if you are a person or an art form, by reading yourself through the prism of another art form, another person. In the case of Klimt I think it had the actual Klimt as a prism, but it got too wrapped up in its own aesthetic. And it falls apart because it ruminates on, maybe, the difficulty of literally representing Klimt, I think. Because there’s this whole nature of doubling and of course John Malkovich is essentially a double for Klimt; it’s a point that’s all but made by that content, but it doesn’t work whatsoever. The didacticism feels really inefficient. Whereas in The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting I think what’s going on cinematically is never really approached in the same fashion.
MSN: I think too, with Klimt, this is the early 20th century and late 19th century—and I think that the sort of new technology of the era might have dovetailed nicely with the disassociation of self that Ruiz is trying to get at with Klimt. Or the way he loses touch with reality or his relationships with people.
JJL: So I guess I’m probably not gonna have to worry about you stealing things compulsively. [pause] Because you’re not a Klimt-o-maniac.
MSN: That one’s actually kind of good, I like that. I like the word “kleptomaniac,” it’s a very visual word. It sounds like…
JJL: It sounds like a lobster’s pincher closing.
MSN: I think of a lobster’s pincher enclosing on an expensive diamond necklace and stealing it.
JJL: Well, Raúl, rest in peace…
MSN: We miss you!
JJL: You made one excellent, excellent film, one shitty, shitty one, and several more I haven’t seen. But there’s a lobster with a diamond necklace in heaven for you somewhere.