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by Raúl Ruiz

grade: 6

Made and edited as if it were an ideal continuation of his legacy as an artist, Klimt stages a dramatic depiction of episodes from the painter’s life in a highly imaginative and artificial Vienna. At the Viennale 2023, retrospective Raúl Ruiz.

The life of an artist

Presented as part of the Viennale 2023 retrospective dedicated to Raúl Ruiz, Klimt, made in 2006 and dedicated, precisely, to the brilliant Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, is a great allegory of the artist’s life, very different from the classic biopic-tribute. An interesting project, that of Chilean filmmaker Ruiz, succeeded, however, only halfway. While the idea of making Klimt a kind of dreamlike spiritual testament is potentially interesting, its realization seems confusing, making the narrative difficult to understand and entertain.

Gustav Klimt (played by John Malkovich) lies on his deathbed, assisted by his student Egon Schiele (Nikolai Kinski) – who will make a great painting from this delicate moment – and is a victim of the Spanish flu, which was affecting Europe in those years. In the delirium that the fever is causing him, Klimt begins to fantasize about his life, made up of successes but also of excesses and scandals, the staples of which are his art and “his” women, among whom are the fashion designer and life companion – albeit in an open relationship – Emilie Flöge (Veronica Ferres) and the wealthy Serena Lederer (Sandra Ceccarelli), his own patron. Thus, memories related to Paris exhibitions and the Secession alternate with long philosophical conversations at the Café Central; all in the form of many small dreamlike images, expressions of his inner experience.

Made and edited as if it were an ideal continuation of his legacy as an artist, Klimt stages a dramatic portrayal of episodes from the painter’s life in a highly imaginative and artificial Vienna. Ruiz focuses everything on the mystical and allegorical atmosphere to put together a sequence of vignettes in which Klimt finds himself but also some fictitious and incomplete versions of himself, like so many of his paintings, which were in fact never finished.

It is precisely art, his art, that always takes center stage especially in his thoughts: from the inconvenient questions about how many illegitimate children, to his obsession with Lea de Castro/Cléo de Mérode (Saffron Burrows) loved and painted several times, everything for Klimt revolves around his being a free artist; free to love, free to launch into philosophical discussions by saying sometimes unseemly words, free to see eroticism in all his muses. Embellished by an elegant use of the camera – the circular tracking shot seems to follow typical turn-of-the-century Viennese music – the dance present in the final version of Klimt (a 130-minute director’s cut exists) is a continuous floating through the fascinating environments frequented by the artist, in constant pursuit of the moral and intellectual freedom that would lead him to clash with so many of his colleagues and even with the Viennese Secession. All this, however, is carried on in a discontinuous manner, disorienting the viewer. And it is not so much the time jump that is destabilizing – since it is a oneiric allegory it is still appropriate – but rather the lack of structure and narrative coherence.

The result is that Klimt, an amusing encounter with George Méliès aside, while having an excellent, Fellini-like basic idea, totally fails to entertain, constantly having to chase after the protagonist, intent on juggling an incredible amount of illegitimate children, the mental problems of his mother and sister, and, finally, a too stupid Schiele. Noteworthy casting and costumes, from John Malkovich (convincing not only because of the aesthetic resemblance), to all the actresses who, dressed up in fantastic outfits, were able to portray the Viennese fin-de-siècle very faithfully.

Original title: Klimt
Directed by: Raúl Ruiz
Country/year: Austria, Germany, France, UK / 2006
Running time: 97’
Genre: biographical, drama
Cast: John Malkovich, Veronica Ferres, Stephen Dillane, Saffron Burrows, Sandra Ceccarelli, Nikolai Kinski, Aglaia Szyszkowitz, Joachim Bißmeier, Ernst Stötzner, Paul Hilton, Annemarie Düringer, Irina Wanka, Florentin Groll, Miguel Herz-Kestrenek, Marion Mitterhammer, Alexander Strobele, Georgia Reeve, Rainer Friedrichsen, Denis Petkovic, Stephan Paryla, Klaus Ofczarek, Georg Friedrich, Erwin Leder, Nicole Beutler, Karl Fischer, Martin Brambach
Screenplay: Raúl Ruiz, Gilbert Adair, Herbert Vesely
Cinematography: Ricardo Aronovich
Produced by: Epo-Film, Film-Line, Lunar Films, Gémini Films, Österreichisches Filminstitut, Beta Film, CNC, Degeto Film, Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Invicta Capital, ORF

Info: the page of Klimt on iMDb; the page of Klimt on the website of the Viennale; the page of Klimt on the website of the Austrian Film Commission