Thursday, September 14, 2017

210. The late Chilean maestro Raoul Ruiz’ European film “Klimt” (2006) (Austria/France/Germany/UK): Outstanding cinematic exploration of the complex mind of an artistic genius, dying from syphilis

“Who art thou? “asked the guardian of the night. 
” From crystal purity I come,” was my reply.” And great my thirst, Persephone. Yet heeding thy decree I take to flight and turn, and turn again. Forever right I spurn the pallid cypress tree. Seek no refreshment at its sylvan spring but hasten on toward the rustling river of Mnemosyne wherein I drink to sweet satiety. And there, dipping my palms between the knots and loopings of its mazy stream I see again, as in a drowning swimmers dream--all the strange sights I ever saw. And even stranger sights no man has ever seen.” 
---End lines spoken by Klimt (played by John Malkovich) in Raoul Ruiz’ film Klimt.
Klimt has been dismissed by most critics and viewers as difficult and silly. Klimt is difficult but not silly. Klimt, the film, is a heady cocktail of two brilliant minds: Gustav Klimt the painter, and Ruiz the filmmaker. It is a delicious cocktail to be enjoyed by intelligent and patient viewers.

Take the enigmatic end lines—the flowery words would have little impact beyond the oratory of Malkovich, if the viewer had no idea of who Persephone and Mnemosyne are. They are two important figures of the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries associated with agriculture (in particular, Persephone) and afterlife in Hades. It is likely that these lines were written/chosen by Ruiz (as he is the original screenplay writer of the film) rather than attribute it to unlikely historical words spoken by Klimt the artist in real life. Mnemosyne, according to the Eleusinian mysteries, conceived nine Muses after sleeping with Zeus. Mnemosyne presided over a pool (or the river of memory) from which dead souls drank from. Memory is crucial for both Klimt the artist and Ruiz the filmmaker, during their respective creative lives.

Klimt (Malkovich) experimenting with glass and syrup, to visualize
his future paintings such as "The Kiss"

Klimt views flying golden paper in his studio--a crucial element
that would eventually be a stamp of his famous paintings

The artist Klimt is fascinated by flowers (many of his paintings are in fact flower related) and by mirrors. The Klimt on screen is a creative individual whose memories constantly flirt with mirrors. And why is Ruiz emphasizing mirrors? Because Ruiz himself is constantly battling his own memories of Chile, the homeland he fled, a recurring facet in all his films made after he left Chile.

Like Terrence Malick, Ruiz is a very well-read filmmaker and all his films bear testimony to this. Ruiz in Klimt is thus able to connect Klimt’s licentious life that led to his syphilis with the world of Mnemosyne and her Muses. On the fictional death-bed scene (early in the film) that Ruiz lovingly presents—Klimt utters the words “Flowers” as enigmatically as Citizen (Charles Foster) Kane utters “Rosebud” in Welles’ film. Ruiz’ film does not give much importance to Klimt’s paintings of flowers as much as he does to his nudes. When Egon Schiele (played by Nikolai Kinski, son of actor Klaus Kinski) hears the words “Flowers” spoken by Klimt, he rushes to the mirror facing the dying Klimt in the hospital room. Schiele knew the connection—which is why Ruiz’ film is emphasizing the role of mirrors at several levels in the film—see-through mirrors, broken mirrors, anamorphic mirror images et al. (One wonders if Sukurov’s film Faust (2011) was influenced by the ideas of Ruiz utilized in Klimt.)

An important factor while viewing the movie Klimt is to separate the genius of the artist Klimt from the brilliance of Ruiz the director. Take for instance the sequence that precedes the scene where an angry Klimt smears the face of an irritating individual in a restaurant with a cake. As the gentleman speaks the camera seems to spin. Pay more attention: the camera and the table on which Klimt is sitting both revolve while the outer periphery, where the speaker is standing, is static! It is the director’s clever method to get viewer inside Klimt’s mind at that time and what action follows can be anticipated by the viewer. Most other directors would have chosen the easier option of a mere spinning/revolving camera. Klimt’s actions fascinate you, but the filming is perhaps even more fascinating.

The two Leas (Saffron Burrows) and the enigmatic/metaphoric/psychological
"mirror" confront the creative Klimt (Malkovich)

hen there is the script of Ruiz. Here’s is an example of an unforgettable line: “The real one is not as real as the false one.” This, of course, is reference at the more obvious level of Klimt’s muse Lea de Castro and imagined/false Lea. With actress Saffron Burrows playing both Leas, Ruiz presents the diseased mind of a syphilitic Klimt who imbibes mercury, the only known partial cure before the advent of penicillin. Can Ruiz make film without a swipe at military rulers of Chile? In Klimt, a character pontificates: “They say that you have to stand outside of history. This history is a nightmare. And that there's absolutely nothing else to be said about it. They sound like philosophers. Except they say philosophy is rubbish.” The parallels will not be lost on those viewers who know Chile’s history and Ruiz’ relationship with Chile.

A dream sequence when Klimt confronts his young daughter,
with two crucial ladies--Midi and Lea-- in his life
standing in separate doorways. Note
the lighting is only on the father and daughter,
in an otherwise darkened dream sequence

Ruiz’s cinema has several layers that can be missed by a casual viewer. Lea and the false Lea are just one example. The two doorways in the dream (“take the left and then the left” Klimt is advised, the recurrence of coins in the film (tossed and then a coin rubbed against the bed linen), the Austrian government coin to honour Klimt, and the cats are there in the film with a purpose. Klimt painted cats as much as he painted flowers. But if the viewer is not aware of this fact, the presence of cats in reality and in the dream sequence would seem odd.

Klimt tries to touch Lea's projected image,
created by Georges Melies

Ruiz doffs his cap at the silent movie director and inventor Georges Melies in the film Klimt. It is debatable whether Klimt and Melies actually met but in the film Melies states that he admires Klimt, when he meets him. In the film, Melies projects a film of Klimt and Lea, during the projection of which Klimt attempts to touch Lea’s projected image. Thus, the film goes beyond Klimt with Ruiz’ script—it is an attempt to honour film history as well.

There are overhead shots in Klimt that Ruiz would continue to dazzle us with in his later film, Mysteries of Lisbon. The collaboration of Ruiz with Argentinian cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich is magical. Aronovich (who had worked earlier with Malle, Truffaut and Costa-Gavras) must have been a major party to the startling anamorphic images in the film Klimt.

"The Kiss" the painting that is never
shown in the film but the process of creation
of which is suggested throughout the film

The famous Klimt painting “The Kiss” is never shown in the film but the seeds of the imagery of the famous painting being sown in the mind of the painter are cleverly shown over two separate sequences in the film. First, you see Klimt viewing nudes through a glass sheet over which he has thrown a translucent syrupy liquid which merely reveals the face of the model. Klimt is shown to be happy with that perspective. Much later in the film, Klimt works with gold coloured paper cut up into small rectangles that are thrown up by either by accident or purpose. Klimt looks up at the floating gold coloured paper. For those familiar with the famous painting, the sequences fall into place. The problem with Ruiz (as in the case of Malick) is that he made films for an audience that he assumed was equally well-informed as he was. Ruiz is certainly not a director who spoon feeds the lazy viewer. In this very sequence, the mysterious junior diplomatic secretary arrives at the door of Klimt's studio unannounced petting Klimt’s cat. In the film Klimt, Ruiz is not showing the viewers the cat paintings or the flower paintings or even “The Kiss.” He is showing us the mind of the painter at work.

Now there are at least two versions of the film Klimt. There is a 97 minute producer’s version and a 131 minute director’s version. It is the latter version that matters. The former version is the one that was widely released and seen. The latter version would be a delight for viewers familiar with the paintings of Klimt and the filmmaking style of Ruiz. For those viewers, this Ruiz film ought to rank among his very best.

Klimt (Malkovich) and Midi (Veronica Ferres),
an intimate lady friend who promoted his paintings
and knew his mind

Another fact that would delight the viewers is the choice of actors that Ruiz consciously and carefully made. John Malkovich does resemble Klimt if we compare Klimt’s photographs that survive. Similarly, Nikolai Kinski does have unmistakable resemblance to Egon Schiele. The choice of the four lead actresses by Ruiz is another remarkable one—Saffron Burrows as the two Leas who serve as his Eleusinian Muse, Veronica Ferres and Sandra Ceccarelli as his well-meaning promoters of his paintings and finally Aglaia Szyszkowitz as his Jewish lover who gave birth to his daughter.

Ruiz’ Klimt will remain one of the best films on a painter and how the mind of the painter worked, even when the painter was battling syphilis and genetic madness (his mother and sister were mad, as indicated directly and indirectly in the film). Kudos to Ruiz for his well-designed original screenplay that squeezed in all these details!

P.S. This critic has reviewed Ruiz’s films That Day (2003) and Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) earlier on this blog. (You can access each review by clicking on the name of the films).