- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (17/1/2020)
(Reviews of Lullaby; Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché; Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait)
What do you do when the Prix Goncourt-winning novel you are about to adapt gives away its secret in the opening segment? That's the problem facing director Lucie Borleteau and co-writers Jérémie Elkaïm and Maïwenn Le Besco in bringing Leïla Slimani's thriller, Chanson douce, to the screen as Lullaby (or Perfect Nanny, as it was known on the festival circuit). The few who remember the source incident that took place in Manhattan in 2012 will already be prepared for the worst. But, while she wisely shuffles it towards the end of her perfectly competent interpretation, Borleteau still struggles to avoid her shocking twist feeling like something out of a generic horror movie.
Record producer Paul (Antoine Reinartz) and lawyer Myriam (Leïla Bekhti) live in Paris with their five year-old daughter, Mila (Assya Da Silva), and their nine-month son, Adam (Calypso Peretjatko). As Myriam is keen to return to work and the couple is eager to spend some more quality time rekindling their bond, they decide to hire a nanny and conduct a series of interviews with prospective candidates. Just as they are beginning to despair of ever finding someone suitable, Louise (Karin Viard) arrives and immediately wins Mila's trust by talking to her toy rabbit and whispering in her ear.
Despite dreading the idea of anything happening to her children, Myriam is happy to leave them with Louise, as she has good references and seems to be prim and proper. She travels across the city each morning from the small flat in the suburbs where she has lived since her husband died and her grown-up daughter left home. While she can be strict with Mila, Louise dotes on Adam and snaps at a small boy who steals his truck in a sandpit in the park. However, the local baker (Claire Dumas) reassures Myriam that she has seen a lot of nannies and few seem so connected with their charges.
Feeling liberated, Myriam and Paul go to a party with friends, while Louise stays home and gently admonishes Mila for not finishing her yoghurt. Finding her asleep on the sofa, Paul pulls a blanket over Louise and Myriam smiles, as she suspects she has found a treasure. However, they have words over expiry dates and food waste and Myriam is taken aback when Louise arrives silently early for work while she is still showering. Yet Myriam feels sorry for Louise when Paul's mother, Sylvie (Noëlle Renaude), arrives unannounced and whips Mila into a frenzy of excitement with sweets, bed bouncing and a tinsel popper.
Such is Louise's eagerness to please, however, that she responds by throwing a birthday party for Mila's friends and Myriam is so taken by the sight of them having fun (and grateful for the chance to have a quick nap after a busy day at the office) that she says nothing about Louise organising the treat without asking permission. Days later, however, Myriam succeeds in annoying the nanny when she comes home early and orders a takeaway after Louise had already started to prepare the children's tea. Tidying up briskly, Louise leaves without another word and Myriam feels aggrieved at being made to feel guilty.
She is also stung when Mila's teacher (Laure Giappiconi) calls her into school to inform her that she had hit a classmate on the face with a ruler when he teased her. Myriam apologises for being preoccupied with work and for relying too heavily on Louise, who has let down her guard at the part to chat with Wafa (Rehab Mehal), who is minding one of Mila's playmates. However, Louise doesn't entirely approve of their conversation about Adam appearing in both the Bible and the Qur'an and she returns home to play a snarling monster to get Mila squealing with mock terror (as she had earlier unsettled her by hiding under the bed to see how she would react to being alone).
When Paul and Myriam invites Louise to stay for dinner with some of her friends, she is flattered and cooks a special dish. She gives advice to one of the other mothers and is touched when Paul invites her to join them on a family holiday on Formentera. The view from the villa balcony thrills her and Louise lets down her short blonde hair and ditches her customary print dress for a swimsuit. However, she snaps at Mila when she tries to pull her into the sea and is ashamed when she has to admit that she can't swim. She clings to Paul when he tries to get her used to the water and blushingly agrees to spend a night out with the couple when the maid offers to keep an eye on the kids.
As they walk into town, Paul and Myriam text each other about what they are going to talk about to Louise, but she is glad to see them smooching together and smiles on the balcony when she hears them having sex. She becomes obsessed with the couple having another child so that they become even more dependent upon her and even takes Mila and Adam to a cheap café for supper to leave their parents alone together. But, while Louise cajoles Mila into asking her mother for a new sibling, Myriam has an early night and Paul can't understand why the nanny is so miffed when they get home.
During an outing to the park, Louise and the children doze off in the sun. But Mila wanders away and Louise is nettled when the old lady who finds her reproaches her for her negligence. Relieved, but enraged, Louise warns Mila about being abducted by wicked men and is stunned when the girl bites her on the shoulder. Seeing Myriam preoccupied when they get home, Mila comes to stand beside Louise, who seems to repay the faith when she begs Myriam to do nothing about the fact that she bit her and also nipped Adam (who is now 15 months old and played by Benjamin and Max Patissier) on the arm. However, Paul is outraged when Louise puts make-up on Mila, even though she has butterfly painted her own face as part of a game.
Paul is beginning to tire of Louise's `victim face' and is concerned that Mila is starting to pick up her values. Thus, when his parents decide to come on their cottage holiday, Myriam has to tell Louise that she is not invited. Rather than spending a miserable week in her impoverished banlieue, however, Louise moves into the flat for the week and sprawls naked on the settee watching the television. Over dinner, Sylvie chides Myriam for spending too little time with her kids and Paul is shamed into informing his wife that he wants to fire Louise because her gloominess gets him down. Clearly unwilling to become a full-time mom again (and definitely against having any more children), Myriam tries to manage the situation and seems to win the argument when they get home to find that Louise has tidied up in their absence and left them a bouquet to welcome them home.
All seems normal again, as Louise plays shop with Mila. However, she astonishes the girl by using a plastic potty to take a pee and makes Mila empty it into the loo. She pretends to storm out when Mila refuses to return to their game and hugs Adam when he starts bawling because he thought Louise was abandoning him. But her tenure seems to be at an end when the tax authorities contact Paul and Myriam to inform them that Louise owes them significant arrears. When Paul shouts at her, Louise bursts into tears and tells Myriam that her in-laws took her daughter away when her husband died and that she has been struggling to cope ever since.
Back home, Louise finds some of her child's toys and clutches a threadbare stuffed dog. She also puts the large pile of unopened post in the sink and pours boiling water over it. In her distress, she imagines seeing octopuses squirming out of the sinks in the kitchen and bathroom and Louise clubs at them with a standard lamp in a tormented frenzy. Meanwhile, Myriam and Paul argue about Louise's value, with the former averring that she is devoted to the children and has allowed them to reclaim their lives. However, she is discomfited to find Louise in her kitchen before dawn the next morning and wonders whether Paul may be right after all (or is this a dream, as Louise wakes on her sofa fully clothed after crashing out the night before).
The next day, Louise finds Adam playing with a letter from a nearby crèche agreeing to take Mila and her brother and she is utterly crushed. She leaves as soon as Myriam gets home and she is disturbed to find a stripped and washed chicken carcass left on a plate on the table. As Paul is away, he reassures her that everything will be fine and promises to speak to Louise on his return. When Wafa calls round to see why Louise hasn't come to the park, she is unsettled by her dishevelled appearance and confused expression and rushes her young charge out of the apartment.
While Myriam collects some cakes from the bakery, Louise runs a bath and calls Mila, who hides under her bed. As Myriam enters the apartment, she sees Louise slumped on the floor with a knife in one hand, while the other clutches at a wound in her throat. She screams when she finds her slaughtered children, as the camera prowls around the blood-spattered bedroom. When Paul arrives home to see a gurney being bundled into the back of an ambulance, he looks up at his window with a rising sense of hideous foreboding.
It's easy to see why there was disquiet in some quarters about the extent to which Leïla Slimani based her bestseller on the murder of Lucia and Leo Krim by Dominican nanny Yoselyn Ortega. But, while Lucie Borleteau's adaptation tells much the same story, it's tempting to speculate that she is familiar with Seth Holt's Hammer chiller, The Nanny (1965), which boasted Bette Davis in the title role.
Karin Viard's performance is nowhere near as calculating, although she clearly recognised the merits of a novel to which she acquired the rights in order to ensure that she played the damaged, but largely empathetic Louise. By all accounts, Borleteau took over the project when the original director withdrew, but she seems to have had enough time to mould a sophomore project that share plausibility issues with her 2014 debut, Fidelio: Alice's Journey, which centred on engineer Ariane Lebed's bid to discover the true fate of a crew member who supposedly fell overboard from lover Melvin Poupaud's container ship.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that Borleteau and her co-writers want to place a sizeable (and, to some extent, a satirical) portion of the blame for Louise's actions on Myriam and Paul, who exploit her readiness to relieve them of the burden of hipster parenthood until it suits them better to make alternative arrangements without caring a jot about the impact that such a decision will have on someone they had smugly presented to their ghastly Right Bank friends as an honorary member of the family.
Yet, the script treats the pair so sketchily that Leïla Bekhti and Antoine Reinartz struggle either to generate much chemistry or elicit much sympathy from the audience. By contrast, even though it's implied from her first appearance that this particular Mary Poppins is worryingly tightly wound, Viard shames her employers by investing time and emotion in their children and rather delights in letting them see the trust and affection she receives in return.
Despite the scenario's lack of psychological depth, Borleteau is ably abetted by production designer Samuel Deshors's contrasting interiors and the sly attentiveness of Alexis Kavyrchine's insinuatingly sinuous camerawork. But Pierre Desprats's score is far too button-pushingly blatant and Borleteau's direction begins to exhibit a similar lack of finesse once Louise realises that her cherished position is in peril. Thus, while this makes a fine vehicle for the typically effective Viard, it seems set to disappoint those familiar with the book and dismay those who feel that the Krim family have suffered enough.
BE NATURAL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ.
Documentarists always take a risk when their titles make claims that their films can't substantiate. First-timer Pamela B. Green insists on calling her study of a pioneering woman film-maker Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché. But the story of the Frenchwoman who helped lay the foundation stones of American cinema is anything but untold.
Even before Scarecrow Press produced a 20th anniversary edition of The Memoirs of Alice Guy-Blaché (which had been written in the late 1940s and published in 1976), Victor Bachy had authored Alice Guy-Blache (1873-1968) La Premiere Femme Cinéaste du Monde in 1993. Subsequently, Alison MacMahan and Sabine Lenk collaborated on A la Recherche d'Objets Filmiques Non Identifies - Autour de l'Oeuvre d'Alice Guy-Blaché (1999) before respectively writing Alice Guy-Blaché: The Lost Visionary of Cinema (2002) and Alice & Eiffel: A New History of Early Cinema and the Love Story Kept Secret for a Century (2016). In the meantime, Juan Simon edited the Whitney Museum of American Art's essay collection, Alice Guy-Blaché (2009), while Janelle Dietrick issued Illuminating Moments: The Films of Alice Guy-Blaché in 2017. There has even been a children's book in the form of Mara Rockliff and Simona Ciraolo's Lights! Camera! Alice!: The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker (2018).
Granted, a number of these volumes appeared during the decade that Green has devoted to her highly personal project and she is right to highlight that both the French and American film industries and the world of screen scholarship have been exceedingly, if not wilfully negligent in omitting Guy-Blaché from earlier histories of cinema. But, given that Green leans heavily on MacMahan's solo volume, it would surely have been more accurate to have used the word `Suppressed' rather than `Untold' in the title of a study that seeks to alert audiences to the achievements of a remarkable artist and to shame the male-dominated cine-establishment for its chauvinist arrogance and capricious ignorance?
Green further hinders her cause by cluttering her treatise with mid-ranking celebrities confessing their ignorance of Guy-Blaché. Does it matter whether Evan Rachel Wood, Lake Bell or Diablo Cody was previously aware of a woman who started making one-reelers at the dawn of motion picture history? They probably know nothing about Lois Weber, Mabel Normand or any of the other directors included in the BFI's four-disc set, Early Women Filmmakers 1911-1940. Moreover, Green flits between retracing Guy-Blaché's footsteps and tracking down surviving relatives and their keepsakes in a manner that recalls a TV antique hunting show. She also adopts an unnecessarily busy editorial style and makes distracting use of gimmicky animation to couch her findings in a modishly modern idiom. Yet, for all its idiosyncracies and imprecisions, this is a fascinating and eminently worthwhile profile that chimes in with the concerns of the #MeToo movement, which have once again been highlighted by the absence of women directors like Greta Gerwig (Little Woman) and Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir) from the Oscar and BAFTA nominations.
Following a rapid reverse montage from present-day Hollywood to 22 March 1895, narrator Jodie Foster informs us that Alice Guy, a 22 year-old stenographer at the offices of inventor Léon Gaumont, had attended the first demonstration of the Cinématographe by Louis and Auguste Lumière at the Société d'encouragement pour l'industrie nationale in Paris. The daughter of a publisher with connections in Chile, Guy had been born in the suburb of Saint-Mandé on 1 July 1873 and was largely raised by her grandmother in the Swiss town of Carouge before spending two years with parents Émile and Marie in South America. At the age of six, she returned to Europe for a convent education alongside her four sisters. But, with her father's death in 1891, Guy had to earn a living and she joined Félix-Max Richard's photographic firm in March 1894, prior to it being taken over by Gaumont, with the help of astronomer Joseph Vallot and engineer Gustav Eiffel.
More might have been made of her encounters with Émile Zola, Louis Renault and Alexandre Yersin, to whom she sold the camera that helped him discover the bubonic plague bacillus. Instead, a glorious blizzard of portraits, drawings and screen grabs ensues, as Foster recalls the race to capture motion on film and cast it on to a screen. Gaumont was part of the scramble, but lost out to the Lumières, who have been widely hailed as the fathers of cinema because they were the first to project images to a paying audience on 28 December 1895. However, Guy was convinced that the camera could do more than merely record reality and asked Gaumont if she could attempt to tell a story in La Fée aux Choux/The Cabbage Fairy, which she wrote, produced and directed in 1896. Green shows us a clip from a c.1899-1900 remake, which shows us a woman plucking infants from a cabbage patch.
No attempt is made to explain the content or form of the film or how it was produced. Instead, we get another torrent of fleeting references to other titles that Guy churned out, as Gaumont realised that there was an audience for filmic fiction. It might have been nice to learn more about items like Automated Hat-Maker and Sausage Grinder (1900) and how Guy held her own against such lauded pioneers as Georges Méliès, a magician who had recognised the potential of the moving image. But Green is in a hurry to mention Guy's use of close-ups, hand-tinted colour and synchronised sound before joining Guy and new husband Herbert Blaché (who, despite the exotic name, hailed from London) on their 1907 transatlantic crossing to Flushing, New York, where she resumed her career with the Solax Company in 1910.
Over the next decade, Guy-Blaché would make hundreds of films from her new base at Fort Lee, New Jersey. But she ceased production in 1920 and was allowed to slip into obscurity, as the Hollywood studio system came to dominate the global market. Despite her best efforts to ensure that her 1000-film achievement was recognised by critics and historians, she had to watch from the sidelines as credit being apportioned to her husband and other male collaborators. Not even French TV interviews in 1957 and 1964 could coerce the cine-establishment into giving Guy-Blaché her long overdue place among the pantheon.
At some point, Green saw an unnamed television programme about the women who had played a crucial part in the early years of cinema and decided to make it her goal to turn the spotlight on Alice Guy-Blaché. While canvassing opinion about her in Tinseltown, however, Green discovered that only producer Gale Ann Hurd and director Ava DuVernay were aware of this pivotal figure in screen history. Even well-read cineastes like Peter Bogdanovich proved clueless, although he's in the company of such noted film feminists as Catherine Hardwicke, Julie Delpy, Julie Taymor and Geena Davis, who also profess their ignorance.
Claire Clouzot, who had co-edited the French edition of Guy-Blaché's memoirs, is frustrated that she isn't taught in film schools and academics and archivists like Marc Wanamaker, Drake Stutesman, Kevin Brownlow, Joan Simon, Jane Gaines and sound similar notes. Even Agnès Varda is corralled into expressing her momentary dismay before Green veers off to contact such surviving descendents as great great granddaughter, Tatiana Page-Relo, who admits to knowing little about her life story.
Some Googling and cold calling results in a connection with Bob Channing (the biker widower of Guy-Blaché's granddaughter, Adrienne) and the discovery of some archive stashes in the United States. But Green can't allow herself to dwell on a topic for any length of time and she plonks historian Anthony Slide in front of her camera so that he can recall how, while working on the American Film Institute's catalogue, he had discovered that numerous woman had directed in cinema's first decades, including Kathryn Williams, Ida May Park, Elsie Jane Wilson, Ruth Ann Baldwin and Jeanie MacPherson (who are mentioned only in a montage of magazine pages). While acknowledging that Slide had edited the English edition of the memoirs, Green omits to mention either that he and Jeffrey Goodman had produced a 1993 documentary entitled The Silent Feminists: America's First Women Directors - is this the aforementioned source of her inspiration - or that this isn't the only film to have referenced Guy-Blaché before her own `untold story'.
Slide also lauds the efforts of Simone Blaché to promote her mother and Green conducts an investigation into whether the woman depicted in a Lumière Kinora flip card viewer Simone gave Slide is Guy-Blaché. Green also heads to Arizona to meet Channing, who shows her the boxes of memorabilia in a lock-up that includes Guy-Blaché's Légion d'honneur. He generously allows Green to take much of the treasure away with her (she might have said `thank you' on camera), but apart from some hasty snapshots, nothing is described or discussed in any detail.
Instead, Green hurtles off to meet film-maker Cecile Starr, who had curated a season of Guy-Blaché's work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1987. Among the titles on loan from the Library of Congress were Greater Love Hath No Man (1911), The Detective's Dog, Canned Harmony, The Girl in the Armchair, Beasts of the Jungle (all 1912), A House Divided, Matrimony's Speed Limit and Brennan of the Moor (all 1913), but Green doesn't pause to reflect upon them. She'd rather interview film-maker Maxine Haleff about interviewing Simone Blaché in the 1980s and show how she managed to salvage the footage from an outmoded tape format by getting a specialist transfer company to bake it.
While we wait for this process to be completed, Green follows having historian Tom Gunning give a brief off-screen mention of his theory of the `cinema of attractions' by posting a picture of Georges Demenÿ without bothering to explain his significance. Flitting off to Paris, she asks students at the prestigious La Fémis film school if they know about Guy-Blaché and discovers that they hadn't bothered to inquire why there is a screening room named after her. She even pops into the Société d'encouragement pour l'industrie nationale to see the room in which the Lumières had given their demonstration.
But, once the oven pings (Green can't resist visualising everything involved in her quest, from maps to kitschy cartoon reconstructions), we are back with the Simone interview. Of course, she doesn't show much of it before she intercuts Gale Ann Hurd revealing that she had always felt a kinship with Guy-Blaché because she had started out as a secretary to maverick director-producer Roger Corman before starting to make her own films. This takes us back to Simone recalling how her mother had collaborated on her earliest films with René, Yvonne and Germaine Serand in Gaumont's garden and courtyard.
We see a colour clip from Pierrette's Escapades (1900), as Slide opines that cinema would have died if it had continued to focus on everyday subjects and travelogues and declares that Guy's desire to tell stories helped save the medium (not that Méliès and others hadn't considered narrative, either). Foster avers that the success of The Cabbage Fairy prompted Guy to rework its story in Midwife to the Upper Class (1902) and Madame's Cravings (1906). But we learn nothing about the technique or the trade and how one impacted upon the other, as the pioneers sought to build an audience by pandering to tastes that they attempted to shape through stylistic and thematic innovation.
Historian Alan Williams notes that Gaumont and Charles Pathé dominated industrial production in France around the turn of the century and Guy directed or supervised virtually everthing that the former produced. Hardwicke and Davis express open-mouthed admiration, while archivist Dino Everett wonders why so much money is spent on new restoration of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) when it could be better spent preserving works by undiscovered talents. We see blink and miss `em clips from Greater Love Hath No Man, When Marian Was Little (both 1911), The Sewer (1912), The Ocean Waif (1916), The Empress (1917), The Great Adventure (1918) and Algie the Miner (1919), without learning a single thing about their storyline or style. Cinematographer John Bailey is so intrigued by these magical images that he decided to remake one of Guy-Blaché's scenario using an old handcranked camera
In a bid to demonstrate the `Gaumont house style', random snippets are slung together without elucidation from Dance of the Season, Butterfly Dance (both 1897), Surprise Attack on a House At Midnight, The Use of X-Rays (both 1898), Wonderful Absinthe (1899), At the Floral Ball, The Concierge, Turn of the Century Surgery, Pierrette's Escapades (all 1900) and Cake Walk (1905). Film-maker Kevin Macdonald compares their grammatical sophistication to YouTube videos and historian Henry Jenkins uses split screens to compare the two formats and aver that we are currently in the middle of an equally momentous screen revolution. Stunned comedian Andy Samberg compares The Irresistible Piano (1907) with the Saturday Night Live short, When Will the Bass Drop? (2014).
Foster takes up the story again, as Guy receives a diploma at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, when her only competition comes from Méliès, Pathé's Ferdinand Zecca and Edison's Edwin S. Porter. We see a few seconds of Playing Trumps (1912) and hear Guy-Blaché despairing of the shooting conditions she had been forced to contend with. But nothing so mundane distracts Green, who enlists ace film and sound editor Walter Murch to reveal his limited knowledge of the Chronophone and the role Guy had played in its development and use on films like Five O'Clock Tea, Polin Performs `The Anatomy of a Draftee' and Indiscreet Questions (1905), which has survived in colour. Patented in 1902 by Gaumont and Georges Laudet, this process involved performers lip-synching to recordings on wax disc and they were publicised as `phono-scènes'. Slide points out that Thomas Edison had made Dickson Experimental Sound Film using live sound in 1894, but the slightly sweeping consensus is that Alice Guy invented the film musical and the music video.
Guy and cameraman Anatole Thiberville also made films on location, including Spain (1905), which was made in the same year that Gaumont moved to its purpose-built Cité Elgé facility. This was the biggest studio in the world and, over a computer simulation, academic Brian R. Jacobson explains how shooting took place on multiple levels and paved the way for the factory style of production that would be adopted by Hollywood. Guy directed the first film made there, Esmeralda (1905), and was soon involved in monitoring scripts and training such neophyte film-makers as Étienne Arnaud and Louis Feuillade. She also hired set designer Henri Ménessier to give her films a touch of class and held weekly production meetings.
Moreover, she continued to make pictures like The Mouse in the Crinoline and The Cruel Mother (both 1906). The latter focused on child abuse and saw Guy start to tackle pressing social issues, as well as seeking to entertain with the likes of The Magician's Alms (1905), The Hierarchies of Love, A Story Well Spun (1906) and On the Barricade (1907), many of which contained tricks that she picked up from Gaumont's photographic consultant, Fréderic Dillaye. She pays tribute to his guidance in her 1957 interview, but Williams is more intrigued by the complex roles she was writing for children, whom she directed with particular finesse.
Director Peter Farrelly eulogises about the emotional power that Guy managed to pack into the four-minute running time of The Gamekeeper's Son (1906) but Williams is eager to discuss her sense of comic timing and Taymor, Farrelly, Bogdanovich and costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis fall over themselves in gushing about the hilarity of The Cleaning Man (1900), Race For the Sausage, Madame's Cravings and The Drunken Mattress (all 1906). Williams and Bogdanovich coo over the daring nature of The Sticky Woman and The Consequences of Feminism (both 1906), which prompt Tacita Dean, Michel Hazanavicius and Patty Jenkins to conclude that Guy must have had a huge social, as well as cinematic impact because of her fearless way of depicting the risqué. One titan of the genre to recall The Consequences of Femnism was Sergei Eisenstein, who mentions it in his memoirs and Green draws a parallel between the shots of prams in Guy's film (which the Latvia saw when he was eight) and Battleship Potemkin (1925). We later see a quote from Charlotte Chandler's It's Only a Movie: A Personal Biography of Alfred Hitchcock (2006) proclaiming the Master of Suspense's admiration for her work.
A propos of nothing, Green now sends Roland-François Lack, from Univesity College London, on to the streets of Paris to find some of the locations around the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont that Guy-Blaché used. The superimposition of the clips from The Drunken Mattress, The Rolling Bed and The Four Year-old Heroine (both 1907) over the scenery is neatly done, as is the fact that Lack is accompanied by Tatiana Page-Relo and Gaumont's grandson, Yves. But it's hard to see what this actually achieves, other than showing how more difficult it would be to make those films in those places today.
Rather lurching forward again, Green shows how Guy based the 25 scenes in The Birth, the Life and the Death of Jesus Christ (1906) on J. James Tissot's La Vie de Notre Seigneur Jesus Christ (aka The Tissot Bible) and hired Victorin Jasset as her assistant. Special effects expert Mark Stetson compares the Ascension sequence with a scene in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (1978). Although it ran over budget, the New Testament film was feted by Gustav Eiffel and Guy was able to add designer Ben Carré to her staff, as she attempted increasingly adventurous projects.
This fact is mentioned to justify a segment on script theft based around an anecdote he told about piracy. In addition to locking scripts away, Guy's also used powder to capture fingerprints to protect properties like Wonderful Absinthe, Avenue de l'Opéra, The Cleaning Man (both 1900), The Parish Priest's Christmas, An Obstacle Course, Father Buys a Moke. The Glue (all 1906), The Hundred Dollar Bill and The Fur Hat (1907). Eventually, she discovered the culprit was a young boy working as a night janitor. A split screen compares Guy's Race For a Sausage and Pathé's Policemen Little Run (both 1907), while Diablo Cody marvels at the fact that Guy's script was laid out in much the same way as her own for Jason Reitman's Juno (2007).
In 1906, Guy met Herbert Blaché Bolton when he arrived from Gaumont's London branch to study camera technology. They grew closer during the shooting of Mireille (1906) in the South of France, even though his footage proves unusable. When Guy travelled to Berlin to demonstrate the Chronophone, they meet again and, despite the age gap (she was nine years older), they became engaged. In her 1964 interview, Guy-Blaché twinklingly confides that Englishmen aren't very nice. But she married Blaché anyway and left Gaumont's Paris office when he sent her new husband to be the company's new production manager in Cleveland, Ohio.
This venture folded within nine months and Blaché bought a small studio in Flushing to make photo-scènes and other entertainments. Although no longer on the Gaumont payroll, Guy-Blaché directs the odd film, as does actress Lois Weber (who was married to the director Phillips Smalley) and, in the process, she becomes America's first female film-maker. Her duties meant, however, that Simone and younger brother Reginald were largely raised by governesses, as their mother made such comedies as Mixed Pets, Cupid and the Comet and When Marian Was Little (all 1911) for her new Solax company.
Guy-Blaché recognised the potential to make big money and MacMahan reveals that she hired Wilbert Melville as an assistant director to exploit his military connections on pictures like Across the Mexican Line (1911). She also took on directors Edgar Lewis and Edward Warren to meet demand and formed a repertory company known as the Solax Players that included Blanche Cornwall, Darwin Karr, Vinnie Burns, Gladden James, Marian Swayne, Frances Gibson, Lee Beggs, Burton King, Emma Simpson, Little Magda Foy, Claire Whitney and Holbrook Blinn.
In a rather spun-out and over-illustrated digression, Green contacts Michelle Seymour, whose grandfather was Solax cameraman and Guy-Blaché's nephew, Charles Pin. while John Bailey sources a better camera to remake one of Guy-Blaché's films with his students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. But Green is never one to linger and she shoots off to Fort Lee with historian Richard Koszarski, who has written a book on the subject and describes what the place looked like before the Blaché-Boltons built their studio. In the meantime, Guy-Blaché made such socially conscious pictures as Never Too Late to Mend (1911), A Man's a Man. The Making of an American Citizen and The Strike (all 1912), which examined topics like immigration, anti-Semitism and labour relations.
Simone recalls her mother overcoming her poor English to make herself understood and respected on the set and Solax was soon a major player in the burgeoning film business based in Fort Lee, as Guy-Blaché scooped $50-60,000 p/a from her activities. Foster's narration implies that the double exposures and split screens used in the likes of Dick Whittington and His Cat, The Girl in the Armchair, The Sewer (all 1912) and The Beasts of the Jungle (1913) were exclusive to Guy-Blaché (which they weren't). Film-maker Jon M. Chu commends her use of space and movement, as well as her individuality and avers that her artistry has stood the test of time. But, once again, Green settles for blunt statements and throwaway opinion rather than the rigorous analysis demanded by cineastes or the basis explanation of concepts and techniques that would benefit students and non-specialists (all of which leaves one wondering who this film is actually aimed at).
Working after hours, Guy-Blaché edited her own films and designed the intertitles on items like Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913), which reveals how she had started to vary her camera angles and cross-cut between actions within a scene and parallel actions. In this regard, she was merely copying the screen grammar that was already common in Europe and the United States. Thus, she is no more an innovator than DW Griffith, who was utilising the same strategies at Biograph around the same period, en route to making pictures like Judith of Bethulia (1913), which was far more ambitious and diegetically sophisticated than anything Guy-Blaché was attempting at the same time. This isn't to denigrate her output, but it does place it in a wider context that Green seems keen to avoid mentioning.
Following another diversion to meet some of Charles Pin's descendants, Green takes us on a tour of the Fort Lee studio. A bit of computer wizardry takes us through the different rooms, while an old monochrome photograph alights on the sign reading `Be Natural' that hung on Guy-Blaché's wall to remind her performers how to act. According to academic Drake Stutesman and directors Catherine Hardwicke and Julie Delpy, films like Tramp Strategy, His Mother's Hymn (both 1911), A Comedy of Errors, The Hater of Women and The Coming of Sunbeam (all 1912 reveal Guy-Blaché's love of people, her dedication to truth and her desire to reflect the everyday life lived by her audience.
Moreover, pictures like Frozen on Love's Trail (1911), Two Little Rangers, Parson Sue. Fight in the Dark (all 1912), Brennan of the Moor, Pit and the Pendulum and Roads Lead Home (all 1913) show how often she built stories around strong women. The talking heads claim that she was challenging gender inequality, but this was also pretty common, with Griffith frequently having Mary Pickford and Lillian and Dorothy Gish overcome chauvinist attitudes. Ben Kingsley pops up to praise the economy of Falling Leaves (1912), which eschews cheap sentimentality in showing a small girl tying leaves to a tree to try and prolong her ailing sister's life.
DuVernay comments on Fool and His Money (1912), which has been claimed as the first film with an all-African-American cast. Starring James Russel as a man who finds a wallet and flaunts his wealth to those who had mocked him before he loses it all, the film is hardly progressive in modern terms. But DuVernay notes that it may well have been seen as more challenging in its time, as black characters were invariably stock types who were subservient to the white characters. Indeed, Foster and Green quote an article in Ciné-Journal, in which Guy-Blaché explains that the all-black casting came about unintentionally because none of her white players would appear with Russel (who was known as the `King of the Cakewalk') and his troupe.
In 1913, Blaché quit Gaumont and his wife puts him in charge of Solax Features, as she seeks to expand her empire with pictures like Dublin Dan (1912) and A House Divided (1913). The latter centred on a couple who communicate only through notes and Starr suggests that this was based on life. Although husband and wife were now directing, Guy-Blaché told the Moving Picture World that there was no facet of film-making that a woman couldn't do as well as a man. However, there was nothing she could do about the coincidence of a domestic depression and the outbreak of the Great War in Europe coincided, which forced the Blaché-Boltons to work for other companies.
Academic Steve J. Ross also points out that the division of labour within American cinema was becoming more apparent, as demand for new product meant that studios had to have several projects on the go at once. As documentarist Cari Beauchamp also notes, the rise of the Edison Trust (which had been founded in 1908 to prevent anyone from making films with his parented equipment without paying a licencing fee) also placed a strain on Solax's finances. Eventually, the Trust would drive independent producers west in their efforts to get away from Edison's enforcement gangs and this partly explains why Hollywood became the centre of the American film industry.
By 1916, Guy-Blaché was having to make pictures like The Ocean Waif as a director for hire. Anne Fontaine commends the movement within the frame and the sophistication of the production. But nothing is said of its plot or how it was received, while Kathleen Turner is left to lament that Guy-Blaché and activist Rose Pastor Stokes weren't able to premiere their project on planned parenthood, Shall the Parents Decide (1916), at Margaret Sanger's New York clinic. Cinematograper Pierre-William Glenn similarly lauds The Empress (1917). Once more, however, the comments stand in isolation, as we get no idea of Guy-Blaché's standing in the year that Thomas Ince produced Civilisation and Griffith made Intolerance in response to the criticism of The Birth of a Nation (1915), which most historians agree took American cinema to a new level.
In 1917, Guy-Blaché begins teaching screenwriting at Columbia University, while Solax is forced to lease studio space to other companies. The following year, Blaché abandons his family to try his luck in Hollywood with their biggest star, Catherine Calvert, whom his wife had directed (at the request of an investor) in House of Cards and Behind the Mask (both 1917). Having moved to New York with the children, Guy-Blaché accuses her spouse of having had affairs with Weber and Calvert. We also hear from Simone that her father's investment in aviation left him in debt at the end of the war, while a fire at Solax increased their money worries. While filming Tarnished Reputations (1918), Guy-Blaché contracts influenza and is fortunate to survive the global pandemic.
After her recovery, Guy-Blaché accepts her husband's invitation to come to California. But, while he gets her assistant director jobs on the Alla Nazimova vehicles, The Brat (1919) and Stronger Than Death (1920), Blaché opted to go it alone at Carl Laemmle's Universal Studios. With no work (after turning down the chance to work with Mary Pickford and make a Tarzan movie) and with Solax sold off, Guy-Blaché secures a divorce and returns to France with her children in 1922. Residing in Nice, she tries to find film work, but receives no offers and Ross suggests that the shift to industrial production following the investment of large companies meant that there was no room for the old-fashioned independent. However, the corporate intrusion also reinforced the growing chauvinism in cinema and, in 1927, Louella Parsons wrote about the need for more women directors in Hollywood, as the likes of Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner had become an endangered species.
As Gaumont wires for sound, Guy-Blaché wrote to ask him for work. But he turned her down and omitted any mention of her from the official history of the company's screen operation. In 1932, Simone moves to Paris and is hired as a secretary by United Artists and 20th Century-Fox, while her mother is left to write to Le Temps to correct an article claiming that Germaine Dulac and Dorothy Arzner were the first women film-makers. In Ghost Town: The Story of Fort Lee (1935), co-directors Theodore Huff and Mark Borgatta mention only Herbert Blaché in regard to Solax and historian Vanessa Schwartz is intrigued by the way in which Guy-Blaché was air-brushed out of accounts of the early days of cinema in both France and the United States. One writer who did champion her cause was the aforementioned Victor Bachy, who was Guy-Blaché's neighbour in Brussels in the 1960s.
Back in 1939, Guy-Blaché starts writing for Société Parisienne d'Edition and produces both stories and film novelisations. Around the same time, Gaumont contacted her to review an inventory of the company's films and she noticed that several of her titles has been credited to Louis Feuillade. But, while he thanks her for her notes, Gaumont decides not to use them on the first edition, which fails to find a publisher before his death in 1946. When war broke out, Simone was working for the American Embassy and was transferred to Vichy when Paris fell. In 1941, when she was moved on to Bern, her mother accompanied her
Green makes the Skype acquaintance of Damien Bachy, who finds his grandfather's 1963-64 interviews with Guy-Blaché, in which she complains that Georges Sadoul had mistakenly credited her in The Pioneers of Cinema (1950) with a film she detested, Ferdinand Zecca's The Misadventures of the Calf's Head (1899). The entry also claims that Victorin Jasset directed The Birth, the Life and the Death of Jesus Christ and Esmeralda and actor Henri Gallet for The Cabbage Fairy. Yves Gaumont regrets that Sadoul and other historians failed to interview Guy-Blaché and perpetuated errors by relying on inaccurate documents.
While lecturing in France, Guy-Blaché writes to new daughter-in-law Roberta about her career. While she could write a memoir, she fears she doesn't have the focus, but still claims to have helped Gaumont achieve its status. She accepts she directed few masterpieces and reckons her greatest achievement was to have held such a key post at a time when there was no such thing as gender equality. It didn't help that she had no access to her films and conservator Serge Bromberg explains that 75% of silent pictures are lost and the rest are held in collections around the world. Through Charlie Tarbox, Murray Glass bought copies of The Girl in the Armchair (1912), Officer Henderson, His Double, A House Divided, Burstop Holmes' Murder Case and Matrimony's Speed Limit (all 1913).
In 1952, Simone is transferred to Washington and Guy-Blaché joins her and loans part of her archive to Louis Gaumont, who is writing a book about his father. In their Histoire Encylopédique du Cinéma (1947), René Jeanne and Charles Ford repeat Sadoul's error over The Misadventures of the Calf's Head, but they amend the other two mistakes. Yet, when Jean Mitry publishes the `Primitifs et Précurseurs 1895-1915' volume of his epic Filmographie Universelle (1964), he claims Guy-Blaché only started directing in 1899 and attributes The Cabbage Fairy to Gallet. She urges Louis Gaumont to avoid such slips in his history and reminds him that she directed all of the films made on the terrace at the first studio. In his reply, however, he apologises for missing titles in the company catalogues and blames bureaucratic glitches and deteriorating prints for the problem.
Even today, Guy-Blaché's films are difficult to see and we go to the heaquarters of the International Federation of Film Archives to see a stored copy of The High Cost of Living (1912) and learn about the pros and cons of nitrate film. Back in 1956, while visiting her son, Guy-Blaché managed to track down some of her films at the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress. She starts work on her memoirs and wonders if anyone will care, especially as she keeps having to write to newspapers and magazines to correct mistakes in their copy. Even supposedly well-researched tomes like Daniel Blum's A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen (1953) credited Lois Weber with being the first female director-producer.
It wasn't all bad, however, as Guy-Blaché was feted at a 1957 FIAF conference, at which Sadoul took notes and promised to get his facts straight and Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française thanked her for gracing them with her presence. The most propitious meeting, however, was with German director-cum-collector Gerhard Lamprecht, who unearthed copies of The Stepmother (1906) and The Child on the Barricade (1907). However, he resisted her request to keep hold of the prints and director Gillian Armstrong laments that people leave thinking about their legacy until so late in their lives.
Yet, as Guy-Blaché told Bachy, nobody wanted her autobiography and it remained unpublished in her lifetime. There were occasional flickers of interest, however, with screenwriter Frank Leon Smith crediting her as a renowned writer, director and producer of films in a 1964 article in Films in Review. He also mentioned her `Be Natural' sign and expresses his gratitude for the lesson it taught him. That said, Thomas Hanlon's documentary, Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, New Jersey (1964), gives Blaché the sole credit for building the Solax studio.
We see footage of Guy-Blaché boarding a plane to fly to New Jersey to live with Simone and continue the search for her films. She dies at the age of 94 on 24 March 1968 (just four days after Carl Theodor Dreyer, who was 79). Eight years later, her memoirs are published in France, complete with a charming tribute from her daughter. But, as a closing caption affirms, past mistakes by cinema historians have diminished Guy-Blaché's achievement. Indeed, when Gaumont director general Daniel Toscan du Plantier joined Nicole Lise Bernheim and Claire Clouzot on the radio programme, En l'air, in 1975, he had no idea who Guy-Blaché was. Historians Jacques Deslandes and Charles Ford respectively describe her as a pretty businesswoman and a woman who remained in the shadows because her work was `honest, honorable, likeable' rather than brilliant. In admitting that he didn't know if she directed, as well as produced, Henri Langlois dismissed her as `a worldly woman' who wasn't `a Chanel type'.
At least Deslandes partially redeems himself by stating that Guy-Blaché was a woman who understood every part of the film-making process, while Francis Lacassin notes that Louis Feuillade spoke highly of her for encouraging him to direct. Liliane de Kermadec concludes that her marginalisation is primarily down to the fact she was a woman and Clouzot and Bernheim join her in demanding that the 200 or so films in the archive are screened. Toscan du Plantier complains it wouldn't be profitable to retore such niche items.
This civilly heated debate sums up the Guy-Blaché conundrum and Green would have been advised to end there rather than insert a summation montage that includes soundbites congratulating her for putting a forgotten woman in the spotlight. Yet, there is no doubt that Alice Guy-Blaché should be afforded her rightful place in cinema history and Pamela Green is wholly entitled to feel proud of the effort she has put in to changing perceptions.
She might overplay the globe-trotting quest element, but it's easy to see why she would want everyone who helped her to get their close-up. Similarly, she should probably have cut down on the number of celebrity talking heads who appear to utter a banality so that she can add their name to the credits. The interminable use of maps and animated fillers is also clutteringly exhausting and one is forever longing for a considered opinion or piece of critical analysis that lasts for more than two sentences. Similatly, the split-screen insertion during the credit crawl of John Bailey filming Chris Kattan and Horatio Sanz recreating At the Photographer's (1900) feeling like a weak punchline to an irksome shaggy dog story. Yet, despite the absence of wider contextualisation and contemporary critiques, this is an utterly compelling paean that should be made compulsory viewing for anyone doing Cinema Studies or film-making courses.
A specialist in film graphics by trade, Green might have been more generous to the scholars who have trodden this path before her (including co-scenarist Joan Simon and Alison McMahan, whose dedicated website is well worth a visit). She might also have mentioned the excellent work done by the Women Film Pioneers Project and the existence of Kino Lorber's 2009 Gaumont Treasures (1897-1913) collection, which includes 75 of Guy's films. But her energy, enthusiasm and tenacity cannot be faulted. In particular, the way in which she shames the Cinémathèque Française for its pathetic throwaway reference to Guy-Blaché is cheerworthy and it should seek to atone by curating an exhibition of the artefacts and documents that Green has uncovered during her gumshoe odyssey. Without doubt, this frenetic rattlebag (which boasts Robert Redford and Hugh Hefner among its executive producers) has its flaws. But it's also bold, celebratory and bang on the money in the week that Hollywood once again failed to find a woman director worthy of being judged equally against her male peers.
LUCIAN FREUD: A SELF PORTRAIT.
As the Royal Academy's Lucian Freud show enters its final fortnight, Exhibition on Screen returns with another of its clear-sighted assessments. Directed by David Bickerstaff, Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait reflects on the 50 or more canvases that the artist painted from 1939 and which have been assembled by the RA in association with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
When asked if he was a good model, Freud replied, `No, I don't accept the information that I get when I look at myself, that's where the trouble starts.' Exploring changes in graphic style and mindset, this typically polished overview of 64 years of troublesome self-imagery also considers the ageing process and how Freud's visions of himself fitted into his career as a whole.
In a clip from David Dawson's Inside Job (2010), Lucian Freud declares that he set out to `shock and amaze' and not only treated each canvas as though it was the first (and last) he would ever produce, but also as though it was the first painting that had ever been done. Over a shot of `Leigh Bowery' (1991), Tim Marlow, the outgoing artistic director of the Royal Academy of Arts, claims that Freud was one of the great students of the human form. As we see `Portrait on Red Sofa' (1993-94), Marlow suggests he was a visionary who remained indebted to such Old Masters as Titian and Rembrandt and spent more time in the studio than the majority of his peers. He also notes that he had a piercing stare and contrasts how the photographic and painted images of Freud reveal different facets of his personality.
By depicting himself with such candour, Freud combined the human and the artistic and RA curator Andrea Tarsia points out that this juxtaposition proves a element of the exhibition. David Dawson picks up on this and places Freud alongside Rembrandt and Picasso among the doyens of self-portraiture. Critic Sebastian Smee opines over `Flyda and Arvid' (1947) and `Man At Night' (1947-48) that Freud was fascinated with himself and liked to present himself being caught unawares.
Born in Berlin on 8 December 1922, Freud was the grandson of Sigmund Freud and critic William Feaver reveals that his two brothers resented the fact that he was their mother's favourite and this bubble of privilege meant that the increase in anti-Semitic activity in Germany in the early 1930s came as something of a surprise to him. When his parents moved to Britain in 1933, he was enrolled at the progressive Dartington Hall School in Devon. But he failed to settle here or Bryanston School in Dorset and was awarded a place at the Central School of Art in London on the strength of the 1937 sculpture, `Three-Legged Horse'.
He only lasted a couple of terms, but prospered at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Dedham and we see his 1940 portrait of the founder, Cedric Morris. While Freud enjoyed his stay, art historian Catherine Lampert suggests that Morris's influence was only fleetingly evident in items like `Portrait of a Boy' (c.1940) and `The Village Boys' (1943). But Tarsia claims that Morris convinced Freud to take his art seriously and works like `Self-Portrait' (1940) were the result.
Following a short stint as a merchant seaman on the Atlantic convoys, Freud moved into a flat in St John's Wood with fellow artist, John Craxton, who introduced him to a new circle of friends. In addition to producing book and magazine illustrations, Freud worked on `Man With a Feather (Self-Portrait)' (1943) and `Quince on a Blue Table' (1943-44) and Feaver notes the use of bright enamel paints in the style of Picasso. He also describes how Freud discovered high society and girls after moving to Paddington and married Kitty Garman, the model for `Girl With a Kitten' (1947), who was the daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein.
After meeting Picasso in Paris in 1946, Freud and Craxton went to Greece, where he produced two more self-portraits, `Man With a Thistle' (1946) and `Still Life With Green Lemon' (1947). As he appears in the periphery of each canvas, Tarsia suggests they have an elusive discretion, which Lampert contrasts with drawings like `Startled Man' (1948). Jasper Sharp, the curator for Modern and Contemporary at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, compares it to Rembrandt's `Self-Portrait in a Cap, Wide-Eyed and Open-Mouthed' (1630) in averring it's the work of a draughtsman showing what he could do.
In a 2010 filmed conversation with John Richardson, Freud discusses the kind of Sur-realism favoured by Guillaume Apollinaire and he concedes that he was aiming for a form of hyper-reality in works like `Sleeping Nude' (1950) and `Interior At Paddington' (1951). Artist David Austen enthuses about these early pictures and the likes of `Boy Smoking' (1950-51) and `John Minton' (1952), as their magical intensity captured the spirit of a bohemian London in which life and art were indivisible.
Freud tells Dawson that he steered clear of cliques and was helped to find a studio by Peter Watson (whom he drew in 1945), who also introduced him to gallerists who purchased pictures like `Hotel Bedroom' (1954). Critic Martin Gayford reveals that it was painted in Paris, where he had started moving in artistic circles with second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood. who also sat for `Girl With Starfish Necklace' (1952). Gayford explains that Blackwood disliked posing and Feaver reveals that Freud was unfaithful to her almost as soon as they married.
Artist Liz Rideal opines that he turned to self-portraiture because he had a selfish streak, while his gambling and fast living reflected a lack of responsibility that was rooted in his pampered childhood. But Dawson counters that Freud's life and art were so intertwined that he devoted himself to a sitter while working on the likes of `Boy's Head' (1952) and had little energy left over for others.
Tarsia chips in by noting how Freud increasingly showed his fingers touching his own face in such unfinished works as `Self-Portrait' (1952) and `Self-Portrait' (1958), the first of which was painted on a small piece of copper while he was bored on a boat while visiting 007 author Ian Fleming at Goldeneye in Jamaica. This shift coincided with a switch from fine sable to coarse hog's hair brushes and began an obsession with skin that dominated his subsequent career. It also sees Freud move from the margins into the centre of his canvases, as in the trio of 1963 `Man's Head' portraits.
Over `Portrait of Lucian Freud (On Orange Couch)' (1965), Gayford cites the influence of Francis Bacon on this new style and contrasts their working methods, but Austen suggests that Freud wasn't a natural painter and found it difficult to create with such abandon. Dawson interjects that Freud sometimes left long gaps between self-portraits and explains that he often returned to the form after the break-up of relationships, when Freud felt the need to take a long, hard look at himself. Lampert admits that only a handful of the self-portraits actually remind her of the artist, but she and Rideal alight on the third of the 1963 pictures to discuss the tacticity of the paint (which almost seems sculpted rather than brushed) and the switch to plain backgrounds from the detailed brick and stonework of earlier outings.
Over `Self-Portrait' (1959) and `Self-Portrait As the Apostle Paul' (1661), Rideal ponders the influence of Rembrandt on Freud and, over works dated c.1628 and 1669, James Hall, the author of The Self-Portrait, notes that the Dutchman became the first artist to become famous for his own likeness. As we see `The Laughing Man' (c.1629-30), Sharp claims that Freud was highly aware of his position in art history and Dawson reveals that he would often consult works by 19th-century Frenchmen like Degas, Ingres and Courbet when seeking inspiration for a recalcitrant piece of his own. Indeed, he compared trips to a gallery to visits to a doctor to find a cure for what ailed him.
Against a photograph of Elizabeth II sitting for Freud, Dawson also claims that small pictures like `Self-Portrait With a Black Eye' (1978) had the power to dominate a room, as Freud put so much of himself into the paint. Tarsia reveals that Freud received the shiner during an argument with a taxi driver, but Dawson points out that the artist tended to lash out through exuberance rather than belligerence and refers to his loathing of television for pacifying the population.
The camera prowls around a corner at Burlington House to dwell on `Reflection With Two Children' (1965), as Freud explains the difficulty of creation in an extract from `Some Thoughts on Painting' from Encounter III (1954). Tarsia highlights the lack of biography and story in the image, while Lampert considers how the unfinished `Self-Portrait Reflection' (1965) contains the element of `poison' that Freud often slipped into works. She makes mention of his love of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash in implying that he saw himself as a bit of an outlaw and Hall also emphasises how detached he seems from children Rose and Ali Boyt, who are the only people ever seen smiling in a Freud portrait.
Bickerstaff decamps to Freud's studio, which has remained as he left it, as Gayford and artist Anita Taylor analyse the problems inherent in depicting oneself and applying the skills used to view someone else in three dimensions to a flattened mirror image. Taylor also raises the issue of whether a self-portrait owes more to the artist's own conception or speculation about how they are seen by other people. She also divulges that pictures she has made of herself aren't always about her and we see her copying the technique that Freud used on `Interior With Hand Mirror' (1967).
Austen also stresses that Freud disliked working from photographs in producing the likes of `Interior With Plant. Reflection Listening' (1967-68). Sharp and Smee are also taken with this image of the shirtless artist cupping a hand to his ear behind a sprawling potted plant and they draw attention to the contrasting use of the animate and inanimate in his paintings. They also stress how often Freud posed questions without supplying answers and they wonder whether he sometimes surprised himself in his search to come up with something new and unexpected.
As we land in Madrid to see Diego Velázquez's `Las Meninas' (1656), Hall and Tarsia explore the frequency with which Freud smuggled himself into pictures of others. We see his feet in `Naked Portrait With Reflection' (1980), two unfinished self-portraits in the background of `Two Irishmen in WWII' (1984-85), the foregrounded shadow of his head in `Flora With Blue Toenails' (2000-01) and a half-reflection to the side of `Freddy Standing' (2000-01). While noting how these inclusions say something about Freud's sense of humour, Tarsia suggests that they comment on the bond he felt with the sitter. Sharp also points out how many later portraits were sited in Freud's studio, which became a microcosm of the wider world and a both a battleground and a refuge, as he wrestled with the problems of creation.
Despite early success, Freud was only accepted as a major artist in his fifties. The camera glides over `A Filly' (1970), `Large Interior. London W9' (1973) and `Self-Portrait' (1974), as Dawson recalls the thrill of entering the studio for the first time. He describes the sense of being in a place of concentration and excellence, while the spartan nature of the surroundings forced the sitter to project their own personality. Gayford remembers sitting for `Man With the Blue Scarf' (2004) and how Freud was a stickler for punctuality and always insisted on pictures being painted entirely in either natural or artificial light.
Over footage of himself posing naked on the floor of the studio, Dawson reflects on the slowness of Freud's method and how he would often scrape paint from a handheld palette and daub it on the wall. However, he was thinking throughout these stalling strategies, so that no brushstroke was injudiciously applied. The same process must also have been used on `Reflection' (1985) and `Painter Working. Reflection' (1993), which both acknowledge the ageing of the body and assert the endurance of a red-blooded mindset. Depicting Freud standing in an unlaced pair of boots, the latter echoes Albrecht Dürer's `Self-Portrait' (c.1503) and Sharp declares it the single most significant picture in the entire exhibition.
As we see `Self-Portrait' (1990-91) and `Self-Portrait' (2002), Smee avers that Freud detested sentimentality and refused to mythologise himself in later works. Indeed, he often left the eyes obscured to suggest his imperfections and Lampert picks up on this over `Self-Portrait. Reflection.' (2002), in which the hand clutching at a scarf conveys the vulnerability of a man who feared losing his mind as he grew older. Yet he was increasingly vaunted by the art world, especially after `Benefits Supervisor Sleeping' (1995) broke the record for a fee commanded by a living artist when it sold for $36.3 million.
He continued working on items like `Self-Portrait. Reflection.' (2003-04) until he died at the age of 88 on 20 July 2011 and Smee marvels at how active he remained to the end. Despite the 50-year age gap, they became firm friends and he always felt energised after visiting the studio. As we see `Reflection' (1981-82), Marlow claims Freud as one of the finest British artists of the last century But, while acclaiming the timelessness of his work, he admits to being uncertain how long his legacy will last, as he isn't in the same league as such idols as Dürer, Titian and Rembrandt. By contrast, Sharp places him alongside this trio and Cranach and Holbein because he tweaked the tradition they had established, while also being aware of his place within it.
Freud once said that he was never satisfied with a finished work of art, despite being excited by the promise it held during its creation because there was always the chance that it might spring to life. He certainly keeps threatening to leap through the screen throughout this documentary. Ultimately, however, the master self-portraitist proves somewhat elusive, which is puzzling considering that this is such an insider insight.
It's nice to hear so many personal recollections, but they don't always have the detached perspective to give the viewer a fully rounded picture. Despite linking contributions from narrator David Rintoul, there's no real sense of a throughline, while we learn little about Freud's foibles or how he was regarded by the critics and his peers. This cosiness is reinforced by the lack of concerted academic analysis, as there are more gushing generalisations than astute appreciations of Freud's technique and preoccupations. Moreover, the focus on the self-portraits at the expense of other works leaves him looking rather like a reclusive narcissist, which isn't an entirely accurate reflection.
Nevertheless, Bickerstaff and co-writing producer Phil Grabsky take the viewer into the heart of the exhibition. They also capture the atmosphere of Freud's studio with a hushed reverence that contrasts splendidly with Asa Bennett's jazzier than usual score. Nobody does this kind of film better and this is yet another accomplished introduction that will be a must-see for students and anyone fortunate enough to have seen the show, as well as those Freud fans who were too distant to attend. But, rather like one of the paintings under discussion, this tantalises by leaving a few too many questions unanswered.