Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Decade of Dreck #59: Modigliani

Charge Shot!!! is celebrating the end of the decade in the most masochistic way we know how - by watching and writing about the 100 worst movies of the last ten years as defined by film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Click here to see RT's complete list, click here for more about the Decade of Dreck project, and click here to see all of the movies we've done so far.

Ah, the starving artist: you are torn between your passion for your art and a world that doesn't understand your genius. Must you compromise your vision to stay afloat or will you die knowing you've changed the world? Nobody makes movies about the former, so if you please, you may begin hacking up blood due to Consumption at your leisure.

Yes, it's that very fact, nobody makes movies about sell-outs, everybody makes movies about crazy artists who upend their field, that doomed Modigliani from the start. Sure, it could be relatively easy to make a movie about the life of the Italian painter, he certainly has a decent enough life story, but why do it well when you can just do it? That might require something like giving some thought to it, having some talent, and scripting interesting characters we care about for reasons other than that their works hang in the MoMA!

Amadeo Mogigliani certainly deserves a fancy historical biopic as much as, if not more than, any other modern artist. It has all the elements that make the fancy historical biopic film interesting: doomed love, genius, a captivating setting, famous friends- it should be pretty simple to make a halfway decent one of these things, just take the formula for Frida and change the names and you've got it!

I jest of course, this was probably exactly what the people behind Modigliani did, and this was the crappy end result.

I've always liked Modigliani, and when I heard his life's story had been made into a movie, I was certainly interested in seeing it. He was born into a Jewish family in Italy and moved to Paris to join in the wild bohemian circles of the early modernist painters such as Picasso. Living as an outsider, Modigliani had a legendary appetite for drink, drugs, and women. This ultimately culminated in his falling in love with and knocking up a beautiful Catholic girl named Jeanne H├ębuterne, and needless to say, her well-to-do family was less than enthused with having an artist, let along a Jewish one, impregnate her.

The film claims it wishes to deal with themes such as Modigiliani (played here by Andy Garcia), the ultimate outsider, trying to find acceptance in the world with his art. Indeed, the filmmakers wish to remind of you of this at every possible opportunity as every other scene a bigoted French character will bring up how Jewish Modigliani is, and he'll respond with something like "Mi scusi" or "Che bella", because, you know, he's Italian, lest we forget, and that's all the Italian Italian people are allowed speak in English language movies.

We receive periodic updates on how Modigliani's quest to be accepted is going, but most of the movie is spent with him playing grab-ass with his famous friends. "Well if it isn't my rival, PABLO PICASSO! And our mutual friend JEAN COCTEAU! What's your opinion on this DIEGO RIVERA?" (It should be noted that for much of this movie, the actor playing the supporting role of Rivera wears a sombrero, lest we forget he is Mexican). There isn't really too much of a plot to this movie, it's like someone found a college freshman's Art History 102 notes and wrote a screenplay based on them.

Also, Udo Kier is in this movie as Max Jacob and I'm contractually obligated to lose my shit whenever I discover Udo Kier is in a movie.

Besides being an excuse to show us a bunch of famous artists whose names we recognize (if not their art) hanging out together, the film opts to completely rewrite the genre trope of the debauched, self-destructive, alcoholic, drug-addled genius by doing nothing original with it. Modigliani spends just about every scene either drinking a big bottle of wine or sniffing some early-Twentieth Century cocaine. So yeah, he's pissed or high in every scene, but there's just no reason for us to care because the filmmakers have made his character nobody worth caring about. He's self-destructive, and we know why (nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I'll go get drunk!) but it's done so half-assed it's not even worth getting invested in: just because you tell us why a character is the way they are, doesn't mean you've earned the audience's emotional investment; make us care, please.

One of my favorite scenes in the film consisted of Modigliani and some of his artist friends sitting in a cafe while a bunch of soldiers hoisting the Tricolore march off to war. "What's going on?" says somebody. "Oh, it's World War I." says another (I paraphrase, of course). That's it, the most shocking and disturbing event in Europe's history is given one line of dialogue, even though it's aftershocks profodundly influenced the protagonist and his colleagues' art immensely. Whatever, it's just the upending of our culture, no need to integrate this into our new art movement.

Also, there's a montage of Modigiliani and some other artists working on their entries in a portrait contest; lots of shots of artists looking passionate and painting furiously. This would be hokey enough, but for some reason it was considered acceptable for a French guy to rap over the soundtrack. Yup, in a classy period piece set in 1920, you have somebody rapping over a Moby-esque beat. I'm not outraged at all, just confused.

Modigliani gets everything wrong. It has everything people love about biopics, and therefore everything people hate about biopics. Can we give the tired genre a rest now, please?

Modigliani is ranked #53 on the Rotten Tomatoes Worst 100 list with 4% freshness. Its RT page can be found here.