July 2019

Arts & Letters

Art life: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ‘Never Look Away’ and Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’

By Shane Danielsen
By barely disguising an account of the life of Gerhard Richter, the German director fails the artist and filmgoers

Films about artists are a tricky business. For one thing, there’s the matter of measuring up to the Promethean standard of one’s subject, should they happen to be based on actual people. And if they’re not real, there’s the difficulty of simulating work of sufficient quality to convince the viewer of their fictional character’s genius. 

Having pretty much invented both modern art and le cinéma, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the French do it best. Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991), starring Jacques Dutronc as the tormented painter, elevates the biographical drama to the level of fine art itself, while Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, made the same year, is the supreme chronicle of a work in progress – a four-hour drama, adapted from a story by Balzac, in which a semi-retired artist, played by the great Michel Piccoli, attempts to complete one last masterpiece, a portrait of a beautiful young visitor (Emmanuelle Béart). The finished painting is never shown onscreen, but we watch as numerous preliminary sketches are created, revised and discarded, and the artistic process – the branching possibilities of inspiration, the mysterious and irrational set of choices it engenders – has never been better depicted. (One could also cite Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le mystère Picasso, a superb 1956 record of the Spanish master at work. But that’s a documentary, not a fictional recreation.)

Pace Pierre Soulages, the French can hardly be said to have dominated the art world since the 1940s. Rather, that distinction passed first to the Americans, via abstract expressionism and pop art, and then to the Germans, responding to the national trauma of World War Two with a murderers’ row of furious, brilliant artists: Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys… This is, by any standard, an extraordinary array of talent; considered together, they constitute an undeniable historical moment. It’s easy to see why one might want to make a film about it, just as it’s easy to regret that it happened to be Never Look Away, the third feature from German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Our lead is Tom Schilling – boyish, anodyne, disconcertingly reminiscent of Jared Kushner. Born in Dresden, his character grows up in postwar East Germany in a kind of bucolic daydream. He climbs trees, witnesses an aunt succumbing to insanity (“Never look away!” she hisses, as they bundle her off – naked – to the asylum), and, after studying to become an artist, soon wearies of painting socialist-realist murals. Together with his pretty young wife, Ellie (Paula Beer), the daughter of an unrepentant Nazi gynaecologist (Sebastian Koch), they cross the Berlin Wall and settle in West Germany, where he enrols in the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. 

One would reasonably conclude, both from these biographical details and the examples of his work that we see – monochrome paintings derived from newspaper photographs, blurred photorealism – that Schilling is playing Gerhard Richter. One would be mistaken. Instead, for reasons that elude me, he’s named “Kurt Barnert”. At the Kunstakademie, Gerhard/Kurt comes under the spell of a magus-like tutor – a former Luftwaffe gunner, horribly burned after being shot down, healed after being sheathed in felt and animal fat, fond of wearing a fedora. This could only be Joseph Beuys, surely? But no, it’s “Professor Antonius van Verten” – a name nearly as ridiculous as the lie it’s supporting.

Exactly what point is served, you wonder, by this none-too-elegant misdirection? The New Yorker published a piece in January detailing the real Gerhard Richter’s very real distaste for the film. He initially agreed to meet with Donnersmarck in early 2015, after the director approached him to discuss a project, and submitted to lengthy interviews about his life and work. But then he seemed to retreat, perhaps when he realised that he would be the film’s actual protagonist, not merely its inspiration.

Donnersmarck must have sensed Richter’s qualms – why, then, did he not create a fictional artist instead? A blank slate, unburdened by troublesome real-world associations? Why this half-in, half-out nonsense? As it is, the film becomes little more than a series of increasingly laboured evasions and a parlour game of guess-the-real-bloke for those of us who dig this scene. (The guy making triangular paintings – I suppose that’s Blinky Palermo. And that young student who decides to become an art dealer – Konrad Fischer?)

But I don’t want to sit through a film congratulating myself on getting all the references. I want to be gripped by a narrative, or ravished by a spectacle. Yet here, too, Donnersmarck disappoints. He won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for his debut, The Lives of Others (2006), a tale of Stasi interference in the affairs of artists – theatre folk, in that case – and a film several orders of magnitude more nuanced and astute than this one. He then went to Hollywood – which was always his plan – and gave us The Tourist, with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, which should tell us something. But of that first film’s wisdom and restraint, there is no visible trace. By the time we realise that Gerhard/Kurt’s father-in-law is also the very same doctor who first sterilised and then euthanised his aunt – kleine Welt, nicht wahr? – one has begun to feel trapped in some piece of conceptual art oneself: a recursive loop of multiplying idiocies. 

Did I mention this runs for more than three hours? Straining for the epic register, Donnersmarck appears to have taken only the most superficial lessons from Rivette: duration and boobs. Does Paula Beer, a talented actor, really need to be nude in quite so many of these scenes? Especially when she’s barely given an actual character to play, having virtually nothing to do, once they’ve set up house in the West, besides reassure Gerhard/Kurt that everything will turn out fine, because he’s awesome. Emmanuelle Béart was naked through much of La Belle Noiseuse, it’s true, but it never felt half as exploitative and unnecessary as it does here. An equal partner in the creative process, her character inspired a masterpiece. Ellie, by comparison, is merely a prop.

The result is a work of astonishing, infuriating dishonesty. A bad, dull, misguided movie, not only glib in its treatment of history, but muddled in its basic principle, being a squarely representational film about the value of abstracting reality. As an account of what David Lynch calls “The Art Life”, it falls somewhere between Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, and Janey’s action-painting in Not Another Teen Movie. By all means, look away.

When jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu announced the winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he took care to note that it was “by unanimous decision”. Occasionally judging panels get it right, and this is one of those instances. Parasite, by Bong Joon-ho, was not only the best film in Competition – by some margin – but also the one with most to say about how we live now. Precise in its details, generous in its execution, it’s a corrosive dissection of neoliberalism that’s also a gleeful satire, one that grows more tense and caustic as it moves forward.

What’s undeniable is that Director Bong – as Korean filmmakers like to refer to themselves – is sui generis. His debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), was a scatter-shot black comedy, amiable but unfocused; its successor, 2003’s Memories of Murder, felt like the work of another filmmaker altogether. A police procedural about a serial killer, based on a string of unsolved real-life murders in Hwaseong in the 1980s, it veered unpredictably, at times almost randomly, into moments of black comedy and astringent social critique – and ended with one of the best breaking-the-fourth-wall shots of all time. The Host (2006) was at once a monster movie, a family melodrama and a political satire; ostensibly more grounded, Mother (2009) nevertheless found room for impressionistic reverie and a savage indictment of Korea’s hard-drinking culture. 

Fuelled by their maker’s restlessness – his reluctance to ever let a film be merely one thing – each film casually exceeded the limits of its genre, sometimes within a single scene. Bong is less interested in the through-line of a narrative than its margins, the accumulation of small details that ground the action, however fantastical, in shared experience. What does fascinate him are systems, be they administrative or familial, and the rigid stratification of contemporary society. In this sense – and despite his abundant visual style – he’s as political a filmmaker as Ken Loach or Raoul Peck.

The reason it’s not the lead review here is that I want you to see it, as I did, knowing as little as possible – the better to be thrilled by its invention, tickled by its prickly humour and awed by its craftsmanship. Suffice it to say, it’s about a family of impoverished hucksters in a working-class district of Seoul (indeed, for the first 15 or so minutes, it plays like a Korean take on last year’s Palme-winner, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters), and another more privileged family whose lives they begin, little by little, to invade. 

What’s fascinating is to watch it reprise some of the themes of Jordan Peele’s Us. Unlike that film, however, it sticks the landing. While often hysterically funny, in a manner that recalls the late-1950s “outrage comedies” of Japanese director Kon Ichikawa – films like A Full-Up Train and A Billionaire – Parasite also inches, slowly but inexorably, into more painful territory; its final scenes pack an emotional wallop all the more powerful because you never saw them coming. Beholden to nothing but its own ruthless logic, it achieves a resonance that Never Look Back could scarcely imagine, let alone achieve. It is, unmistakably, art.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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