Set mostly in and around Arles in the south of France, this is an uneven but engaging study of Vincent Van Gogh. The first actor to make a significant impact in it is not however Willem Dafoe (who plays the man himself), but Oscar Isaac in a powerfully charismatic performance as Paul Gauguin.
Dafoe’s effect on the viewer is more inexorable, growing stronger as the character becomes more intense and arguably unhinged. It may be a funny thing to say about a film which is essentially about painting, but the best scenes are the ones which are driven by dialogue rather than anything visual. When an anguished and wild-eyed Vincent exclaims “I need to be in a feverish state”, and argues that “God is nature and nature is beauty” – or refers to the menacing spirit which surrounds him – it’s riveting. That said, there are gorgeous set-pieces, such as the scene where Van Gogh looks at the work of various Old Masters in what is presumably the Louvre.
Julian Schnabel was a (famous) painter before he ever wrote or directed a film (Basquiat), and that’s a mixed blessing when it comes to making one about another artist. The style of the movie itself is intermittently impressionistic, and sometimes pretentious. There are pointlessly unusual camera angles and close-ups, and occasional blurring to the point of discomfort.
Another distraction, incidentally, is the intrusive instrumental soundtrack. But if the whole thing never quite equals the sum of its parts, some of those parts are interesting.
And not least is the fact that the screenwriters subscribe to a highly credible – but still not quite proven – recent theory about Van Gogh’s death.
With a bright red bob complimented by a stark polka dot dress, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama ends a response to a question asked off camera with a long sip of her drink and an even longer, piercing stare. She looks both eccentric and like someone who has complete control over how she will be seen. She is one of the most popular artists in the world and, in 2017, broke the record for the highest amount paid for a piece of work by a female artist. However, in her documentary, filmmaker Heather Lenz shows how this hasn’t always been the case.
Kusama’s childhood appears to have hardly been productive to a young artist’s first steps. Or perhaps it was in a perverse way. Her mother was a domineering conservative who would snatch drawings from her daughter’s hands, and deliberately send Kusama to find her father in bed with other women. As Kusama – Infinity later shows, these are the moments that are reflected in her work.
The documentary follows the 20-something Kusama as she travels from a post-war Japan to New York City where she hoped to break all the rules with regards to painting, sculpture and performance art. Lenz depicts a woman capable of owning her sexuality – Kusama admits to not enjoying sex – who was unafraid to use it in the male dominated art world. Not that this is a sordid tale of sleeping your way to the top, far from it. From the moment she steps foot on American soil, it’s clear that Kusama needs to elbow her way through the patriarchy to get seen.
As the ’60s march on, Lenz underlines times when Kusama’s work is acknowledged for its audacity, only for it to be overshadowed by male artists – like Andy Warhol – who find themselves ‘influenced’ by her work. Kusama – Infinity doesn’t outright say that they plagiarise, but the suggestion is clear. What makes it all the more frustrating is knowing how Kusama’s mental health has plagued her most of her life. Kusama talks candidly of trying to kill herself after a particularly egregious example of her work being appropriated.
At times, Kusama – Infinity is like watching an obituary for the living, both celebrating and commiserating Kusama’s time in America and her painful return to her hometown. And like an obituary, it only skims over the surface of the person in question. A fascinating watch, there’s this feeling that we could be digging deeper into Kusama’s life.
Perhaps in an attempt to give the film its happy ending, we jump forward several decades for a pencil sketch of Kusama’s life in the present. Having struggled with her depression for so long, it’ll perhaps be no surprise to read that the artist now spends her time living in a psychiatric ward closely situated to her studio. How did this come about? How does it affect her work? There’s surely a large chunk of the story missing here. It would have been interesting to hear from artists today about how and if Kusama’s work has influenced theirs. Kusama was a trailblazer and it feels appropriate that we should be able to see a few of the people who follow her path.
Taken at face value though, Kusama – Infinity is a still a great introduction to a world famous artist who is likely still a stranger to some.
Set in the early 18th century during the very brief reign of Queen Anne, and partly filmed at Hampton Court Palace, this might sound like a light, elegant and nostalgically escapist film. In fact, it’s often crude and jarring, decidedly peculiar and sometimes very dark.
Unfortunately, none of this makes it particularly good, and a surfeit of distracting gimmicks such as fish-eye lens cinematography and gratuitous soundtrack noises stop it from being immersive or engrossing.
The story unfolds at a time when England is at war with France, and various court attendees are competing and intriguing over how and indeed whether to prosecute that war. These machinations are, however, peripheral to the guts of the matter, which is an eternal triangle. The three ‘sides’ of it are the frail queen herself (Olivia Colman), her friend Lady Sarah Churchill the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and the newly arrived would-be servant/maid Abigail (Emma Stone). Abigail is of upper-class background herself, but has fallen on hard times. She does, however, share with the other two protagonists the quality – if that’s the word for it – of not being a remotely likeable or sympathetic character. This, of course, serves to prevent us from caring about their fates, or about the movie in general. The fact that the occasional attempts at humour (slapstick and otherwise) are not funny doesn’t help either.
The Favourite is like a failed attempt to make a Peter Greenaway film, though without any of his imagination or instinctual flair. Director Yorgos Lanthimos is something of an auteur too when he’s on form, but this time he isn’t.