Based very loosely on painter Gustav Klimt's final two decades, Raoul Ruiz's absurdly overwrought phantasmagoria tries to recast the notorious Viennese artist's life as a kind of Divine Comedy: Inferno. And in case you don't pick up on that, Klimt, played by a mercifully restrained John Malkovich, is seen reading Dante in a Viennese coffeehouse midway through the film. It's that kind of movie.
Klimt's Virgil the guide who ferries him through the turn-of-the-century hell that is pre-WWI Europe's art world is a mysterious figure (Stephen Dillane) who introduces himself to Klimt at the 1900 Paris Exhibition as the third secretary to the minister of culture. The secretary never offers Klimt his name, only words of advice and prophecy, and he turns out to be the kind of guy no one but Klimt can see. A cause scandale in his native Austria, Klimt was assailed by the Viennese bourgeoisie for his frank treatment of female nudity, and derided by critics and fellow artists for creating decadently decorative work, lacking in purpose and utterly useless (the "form versus function" argument, overheard at salons and coffeehouses, runs through the film like plodding leitmotif). Nevertheless, Klimt forges ahead, convinced that the sexuality he expresses in his swirling canvases is all art should be about. He imitates that art in his personal life by fathering children all over town. Now, Klimt and the artistic school he founded the Vienna Secession are somewhat vindicated at the Paris Exhibition, where he wins the gold medal for his strange, provocatively titled painting Philosophy. At the dinner given in his honor, Klimt meets his Beatrice: French dancer Lea de Castro (Saffron Burrows), who appears in the short film about Klimt's Parisian victory conjured by the cinematic magus George Melies (Gunther Gillian). The secretary warns Klimt that the Lea he loves may in fact be a false Lea after all, he asks, how many Klimts are there? and Klimt isn't quite sure which one he's making love to when Lea takes him back to her apartment, where they're watched from behind a two-way mirror by the duke (Paul Hilton), who keeps her and commissions artists like Whistler and now Klimt to paint her portrait. Klimt returns to inhospitable Vienna and his faithful friend and partner, Emilie Floge (Veronica Ferres), and begins to develop his gold-leaf technique, which would lead to his "Golden Phase" and his greatest works. But Lea, her never-finished portrait, and quite possibly Klimt's sanity, grow increasingly elusive.
The film is framed by scenes of Klimt on his deathbed in 1918, with only crazy Egon Schiele (Nikolai Kinski, looking truly mad and an awful lot like his father) for company, and like Ruiz's TIME REGAINED (1999), what lies between flows like deathbed remembrances of things past. At times garish and ghastly, the film is never less than watchable, thanks entirely to Ruiz's visual flair and capacity for resonant, if disturbing, images (Schiele's glimpse of a bloody prosthetic leg and a couple in flagrante delicto is a doozy). But the final moments, in which the dying Klimt finds himself in a snow-filled interior, unsure through which door he should exit, are symptomatic of the film as a whole: They show a paucity of imagination unworthy of its subject and the heretofore unpredictable Ruiz. leave a comment --Ken Fox