John Malkovich Stars in an Art-House Film About a Viennese Painter
If you like the paintings and drawings of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), or if you have an interest in fin-de-siècle Vienna, then you will probably want to see Klimt (2006), an imaginative film that mixes fact with fantasy while chronicling the famed artist's final 18 years. The movie's superb sets, costumes and visual style evoke Klimt's work and transport the receptive viewer into his state of mind. But be warned that this is a languorous, extremely arty film about ideas, and it contains very little drama. Even for a longtime Klimt fan like me, the movie has longeuers.
In a typical artist biopic, the central character is presented sympathetically, but Klimt doesn't follow that template at all. As portrayed by John Malkovich in a strong performance, Klimt is cold, haughty and unlikable. But what's important here is that Malkovich perfectly captures the notion of refined decadence.
One of the major strengths of Klimt is that it avoids rehashing textbook material and instead reveals the artist by way of subjective reality. The meticulous filmmaking creates a vibrant world, and Malkovich creates a fascinating character. However, viewers completely unfamiliar with Klimt and his times will probably have difficulty connecting with this film.
The Artist and the Women in His Life
Gustav Klimt never married, but the movie shows him surrounded by women. His studio work involves the use of nude models, and he apparently has had sexual relationships with quite a few of these over the years. With different mothers, he has sired a number of offspring — he hasn't kept track, but rumor has it there may be as many as 30. Along the way he has contracted syphilis, for which his doctor treats him with mercury.
The person Klimt is closest to is Emilie Flöge (Veronica Ferres), an unmarried woman who runs a fashion salon. The film makes it obvious that he values her companionship, but when she tries to get amorous with him on a couple of occasions, he is unresponsive. Whatever their relationship, in real life Klimt made Flöge immortal by painting a marvelous portrait of her wearing a stylish blue dress and big hat.
The movie shows Klimt proclaiming only once that he is in love, that being when he travels to Paris and meets a woman played by the beautiful Saffron Burrows. It's unclear whether the woman he is smitten with is the dancer Léa de Castro or her look-alike double, but Klimt gives no indication he cares about distinguishing between the two. But there is an artistic legacy since he returns to Vienna and eventually paints The Dancer.
The movie doesn't show any of Klimt's life until he is a successful 38-year-old who has been commissioned by the government to create three large allegorical paintings titled Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna. After years of work, he completes them, but they are rejected, presumably because they do not celebrate the role of academic knowledge in society. The paintings are not known to the general public today since they were destroyed during World War II, but they are crucial to the film, their rejection being a turning point in Klimt's life. He is deeply dismayed, and throughout the movie he is bedeviled by a pesky government official (Stephen Dillane) who pops up periodically, but cannot be seen or heard by anyone other than Klimt.
Without government funding, Klimt relies on selling work to well-to-do individuals, including painting their portraits. In one of the movie's most memorable scenes, Emilie Flöge becomes angry with him while he is working on a portrait of a woman named Adele Bloch-Bauer. Emilie deliberately slams a door so that the gold leaf Klimt is working with is sent swirling around in the air. In real life, that painting turned out to be one of Klimt's most stunning, and after some Holocaust-related litigation, it ended up at the Neue Galerie in New York.
Today Klimt's most famous work is The Kiss (1907/08), but be advised that the film never shows this painting or even hints at its existence. However, a detail from it is shown in the making-of documentary.
A Making-Of Documentary
The only extra of any consequence on the DVD is the 31-minute "Making of Klimt," and those who like the film will find it worth watching. It gives us a chance to hear from writer-director Raúl Ruiz, as well as to see some old photos of Klimt and Emilie Flöge. We also get to see all the principal actors out of character, including Nikolai Kinsky, who plays the artist Egon Schiele. (Nikolai is the son of Klaus Kinsky.) In addition, we hear from key crew members, including the set designers, who explain that reproductions of the destroyed paintings Philosophy and Medicine were created from old photos and descriptions.
Below I have listed the details for the DVD containing Klimt.
Release Date: January 8, 2008
Feature Film Runtime: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Widescreen (1.78:1), Color
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby Digital Stereo
The Making of Klimt (31 min.)