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Friday, 16 September 2011

Painting makes you healthy

This is a Festival review of Calvet (2011)

More views of - or at - Cambridge Film Festival 2011
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


17 September

This is a Festival review of Calvet (2011)

* Contains spoilers *

It cannot have been a coincidence that Rembrandt Fecit 1669 (1977) was timed in such a way that it could be watched back to back with Dominic Allan's film Calvet (2011), about the French artist of the same name, who lives in and discovered his calling in Nicaragua.

(However, I do have to take issue with the account, in the brochure, of Calvet as 'hardly inspir[ing] sympathy' on account of being '[t]attoed, pierced and heavily-built' - he had no more than two earrings on each side, his tattoes were not unusual for a man with a military background (apart, perhaps, on the back of his neck), and, as someone who would have known about exercise regimes from it, he was not out of shape.)

Given that I nearly walked out thirty minutes into the film directed by Jos Stelling (as I did, later in the evening, with The Illusionist (1983), having decided to try one of his later films), I know which I have more to say about. I have just looked at the IMDB web-site, and cannot disagree with any of these comments: 'obviously the director is fascinated by his subject but little of this passion manages to reach the audience', and 'the actors bear a awesome resemblance with the painter, but up to a point who cares?'.

Likewise, with me, Stelling had my attention, but lost my interest, and the other positive comments (about the visuals and the use of an old mirror) were about things insufficient to retain it. I'd really just have happily spent a few minutes reading some paragraphs that set out the facts and events that were presented in the film, e.g. Rembrandt was drawn to artefacts of all kinds in auction-houses, and not being able to afford them - or the effect that acquiring them would have on his family and household - appeared not to concern him, when, in themselves, he could see value, beauty and quality in them.


Calvet was a different proposition. I do not profess to have heard of him, and although, of course, I wish him well showing in New York galleries, one should not get the value of his art out of proportion, for he is not the Rembrandt of his age. It is almost the opposite to that artist's story, because there were periods of his life when Rembrandt seemed to squander the opportunities both that were offered to him in his career and that his family and those who cared for him sought to give him for close and intimate relationships. Calvet acknowledges having thrown away similar chances, but, through painting, fought back against the highly nihilistic and self-indulgent and self-destructive view of life that he had grown into.


The documentary was sensitive, gave a strong sense of all the locations to which Calvet's story took it, and employed a sparing, and so effective, use of time-lapse scenes to evoke differing moods. There is no doubt that Calvet's figure dominated it, either by the scale and coloration of his works, or by the way that he gave an account of himself. For some, though not for me, his repeated focus on the son, Kevin, whom he had deserted seemed a little too much as though it were public self-flagellation, and did not seem to acknowledge that Kevin's mother, Nathalie, had just as much been abandoned by him. (She only got a mention in the closing third of the film, when he goes to France in search of Kevin.)

In this, the film-maker was doing his job, letting his subject talk for us to make our own mind up. Afterwards, in the session that David Perilli led, I asked Dominic Allan whether there had been anything that Calvet told him that he had been unable to check. I was thinking not so much of the work that had brought him to the States on false pretences or those externally verifiable issues, but his extended time in the house in the cul-de-sac, where he had found that he could quell his rage against life and the hallucinatory voices that beset him by attacking the main wall, and then all the surfaces, with paint and any other material (he described burning wood to make charcoal) that he could muster.

Afterwards, Dominic clarified that the images that had been used in the part of the film where Calvet revisits the property were made before work was done on the property (and it was put in the state of repair in which we see it). They, therefore, were the surviving testimony to that time, and, for all the anger and self-disgust that were directed to a suicide of a highly torturing complexion (rather than mere death), they struck a chord, when I saw them, that spoke too much of an ordered rationale arising out of the chaos. Perhaps Calvet had painted before - and he says that he needs that discipline to keep him well - as I otherwise found it hard to understand such an eloquent redemption in art coming to him, when the sort of frenzy and panic that he describes would not have been the time for getting acquainted with painterly method and technique.

The contrast, finally, is with Rembrandt, played in his later years by a second actor, and seeming to paint on not to find or be with his family, but despite them. Not a paradigm of the artist (whether painter, musician or writer), but one that seems to intoxicate some, and to give a different form of contented life from that sought by Calvet.

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