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by Gustav Deutsch

grade: 9

What would happen if the paintings by the famous Edward Hopper actually came to life? Austrian director Gustav Deutsch has considered this with his Shirley: Visions of Reality, presented in the section Forum at the Berlinale 2013 and awarded numerous international prizes.

A new art form

Immediately striking in their extreme realism, their artificial lighting and bright colours – but at the same time conveying an indescribable feeling of inner emptiness – are the paintings by the famous Edward Hopper. Paintings, these, so realistic that they give the impression that at any moment they could come to life. And what would happen if, in fact, they actually came to life? Austrian director Gustav Deutsch has imagined this by making his Shirley: Visions of Reality, which was presented in the section Forum at the Berlinale 2013 and won numerous international awards.

Thirteen paintings by Hopper, then, in a highly experimental feature film that does nothing more than give voice to what the Nyack artist wanted to tell through images. Thirteen paintings that, spanning a period that goes from the 28th of August 1931 to the 29th of August 1963, tell us more than thirty years of American history – with lots of references to what, in the meantime, was happening in the rest of the world – through the vicissitudes of Shirley, an actress in existential crisis, married to a man with whom she is in love, but who, at the same time, makes her feel incredibly lonely.

And if, from the very first frames, we are struck by the perfect reconstruction of the painting Chair Car (1965), we are immediately fascinated by the meticulous representations of paintings such as Room in New York (1932), New York Movie (1939) or Intermission (1963), thanks also and above all to the complex reconstruction work carried out by Hanna Schimek (Deutsch’s life and work partner) and the masterful cinematography by Jerzy Palacz, a long-time collaborator of Ulrich Seidl. Between one picture and another, along with a caption explaining what day we are on (always the 28th of August) and what year, a radio voice informs us of what is happening in the world in the meantime. And then, of course, cinema is there. Although Hopper, in his time, also portrayed cinematic environments (in New York Movie, as well as in Intermission, for example), the complex discourse on cinema, on the actor’s tasks, on the relationship between him and the director and, above all, on the emotions that arise after a screening undertaken in Shirley: Visions of Reality is entirely by Gustav Deutsch. It is up to him to pay homage to his much-loved seventh art, bringing a completely personal and strongly emotional touch to this complex work.

The rest is an excellent Stephanie Cumming, in the role of Shirley, who perfectly renders it on the screen. Her silent but extremely communicative face as Deutsch’s camera approaches her perfectly conveys what the director – and Edward Hopper before him – wanted to communicate to us. From his profound sense of loneliness, to his existential crisis as an artist, to his awareness and mourning period (particularly poignant, in this regard, is the scene depicting the painting Intermission, inside an empty cinema where they are screening Une aussi longue Absence by Henri Colpi). There is no place for dialogue in Shirley: Visions of Reality. The environments shown – similarly to the paintings – include one or at most two or three people. There seems to be no sign of communication or participation among them.

And if, more or less at the same time as the theatrical release of Shirley: Visions of Reality, a further adaaptation of the American master’s paintings in the films of Swedish director Roy Andersson – complete with a complex discourse on human loneliness – was realised, in Deutsch’s work, rather than an admired quote, everything becomes an absolute reincarnation. The only possible reincarnation of an artist’s pictorial work into a further work of art, into a film.

There is little point, therefore, in criticising the weakness of the script, its pedantically didactic nature or its excessive contemplativeness: what we are confronted with is a series of perfect frames that, in their overall view, stand for a realistic fresco of the last century, as well as a deep anthropological analysis. A fresco that, had it “come to life” in the period in which it was painted, would probably, even according to Edward Hopper, have become just that.

Gustav Deutsch, for his part, as one of the most prominent exponents of the so-called third generation of Austrian avant-garde cinema, while throughout his career, time and again, he has shown a great ability to successfully combine film and other art forms – thanks also to copious use of archive footage – with his Shirley: Visions of Reality, he has created something totally new, a true declaration of love for cinema, painting and beauty in the broadest sense. A work, his, that must therefore be enjoyed from the first to the last minute, frame by frame. Just as we would at a painting exhibition. A work after whose screening one feels pleasantly fulfilled, melancholically stunned, sweetly enchanted.

Original title: Shirley: Visions of Reality
Directed by: Gustav Deutsch
Country/year: Austria / 2013
Running time: 92’
Genre: drama, experimental
Cast: Stephanie Cumming, Christoph Bach, Florentin Groll, Elfriede Irrall, Tom Hanslmaier, Jeff Burrell
Screenplay: Gustav Deutsch
Cinematography: Jerzy Palacz
Produced by: KGP Kranzelbinder Gabriele Production, Österreichisches Filminstitut, ORF

Info: the website of Shirley: Visions of Reality; the page of Shirley: Visions of Reality on iMDb