Monday, September 16, 2013

French Star as Modigliani

Actor Gérard Philipe died young.  His life ended at age 36 due to liver cancer.  The French film and stage star was at the peak of his popularity.  He's not widely known here in America.  If you saw his performance as Modigliani, the famous artist, you'd see why Philipe was elevated by the French to a sort of mythic status in death -- like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean were here in the U.S.  He was commemorated on postage stamps and coins.  He didn't live long after this performance was released.
I saw Les Amants de Montparnasse (Lovers of Montparnasse).  This 1958 film seems to exist also under the titles Montparnasse 19 and Modgliani of Montparnasse.  I knew nothing about it but watched because it co-starred the luminous Lilli Palmer.  The film was subtitled.  I could tell in the opening moments that it was about Modigliani, one of my favorite artists.  Philipe's performance moved me to such an extent that it lingered in my mind after I was in bed and tried to fall asleep.  I wished I could give a performance that would have such impact.  I watched it again the following night.  Being near the end of his life must have given the actor an immediate clarity, a psychic energy and an openness in playing an artist in the last year of his life.  The disappointments, the humiliations, the everyday slights that left little breaks in Modigliani's heart come through the eyes of Gérard Philipe.  Words aren't even necessary.  The camera can just rest on his face.  We feel his pain.  We feel his joy.  Watch him as the artist enjoys the moment and feeling of rain on his face.  But, true, we don't know the source of it.  Why does he drink?  Why is he sometimes so brutal to Beatrice?  We never find out.  We just know that, in addition to the tuberculosis in his body, something has ravaged the painter's tender heart.

In death, Modigliani gained fame.  The long and languorous characters in his paintings were worth a great deal of money now that he had succumbed.  In life, he sketched in local Paris cafés for enough money to afford food and drink that day.

Modi, as he's called, makes very little money.  His life is pathetic.  His artwork pretty much goes unappreciated -- taken for granted like running water until, one day, it's turned off.  When he drinks, he can be a brute.  Sober, he's apologetic and charming as a schoolboy.  Palmer played, Beatrice, a lover who knows his inner demons and knows that his artwork is brilliant.  But she's not in love with him.  He's a friend with benefits.
He falls in love with a student in art class.  Jeanne is beautiful, sweet, virginal..  Like a storybook character, she's practically held captive by her mean father.  As a man in love, Amedeo Modigliani's passion to draw is ignited with a new and sweet flame.  She inspires his creative sense.  He gets productive.  She's good for him.  She's good to him.

But he will die broke.  Can an artist, a serious artist, make a living and be appreciated while still alive?  That question is posed dramatically by Vincente Minnelli in Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas as the tormented Vincent Van Gogh.  It's posed comically in The Art of Love, starring Dick Van Dyke as an artist who fakes his own death so his paintings will sell for a big price.  Obviously, the question is addressed seriously in this French film.
When it seems he's about to make an artistic breakthrough and receive the acclaim he deserves, something happens -- like the narrow-minded attitude towards nudity in his artwork.  How can art survive when society has limited vision?

Yes, the portrait of the artist as a dying young man is probably a cliché but I connected to Philipe's performance.  It felt so true.  It was so poignant.
It is difficult to make a living as an artist, whatever your field of art may be.  Devoted actors have studied the classics, trained for years and worked in theaters across the country for the love of the art.  But they can barely pay the rent.  A reality show celebrity like Snooki on TV's Jersey Shore reportedly made $30,000 per episode.  She will make thousands of dollars this month as a contestant on TV's Dancing With The Stars.  One on hand is the hardship and vulnerability of being an artist, on the other hand is the power of marketing.  Art versus commerce.  We see that in this film in the greedy, shrewd art dealer played marvelously by Lino Ventura.  He's such an elegant snake.  He knows Modi is a broken man.  He knows Modi is a brilliant artist. He can make money from Modi's artwork.  Modigliani will have only one exhibit.  He will die penniless.
The art dealer can make a lot from Modi's artwork after he's dead.  He seems to hover near Modi's paintings like a vulture.
And, like a hungry vulture or a cold shadow, he will follow the doomed artist who is clearly near the end of his life.

In this biopic, it's like the fine arts being stalked by the hollowness of corporate greed -- to put it in a modern way.
Ventura's unsentimental performance gives the film a chill of stark reality.  He's very good and makes Modigliani's story even more heartbreaking.

The version I saw ran 1 hour and 48 minutes.  I've read there are shorter versions.  If you can find a DVD of Les Amants de Montparnasse, get that nearly 2-hour version I saw.  The film was dedicated to director Max Ophüls (Le Ronde, The Earrings of Madame de..., Letter from an Unknown Woman and Lola Montés).  He died during production.  Jacques Becker took over the direction of the 1958 release.  Anouk Aimée is delicate, lovely and devoted as Jeanne.  The star, Gérard Philipe, died in 1959.

Noted film critics may have mixed feelings on the film.  But, as an average movie lover, Philipe's performance touched my heart.

Here are samples of Modigliani's famous artwork.



I salute all of you who dare to be artists, who dare to illuminate and to inspire wonder.


  1. Gerard Philipe was marvellous, and died far too young in 1959 - just as Delon and Belmondo were taking off. He is rather like England's Dirk Bogarde - if only he had as long a career. I like him in the 1954 Knave of Hearts, and Fanfan Le Tulipe in 52, where he is a dashing hero. His other films are slowly becoming available too. This one though is the standard artist starving in a garret saga, about Modigliani. The women are good - Palmer and Anouk Aimee.

  2. Michael, I really didn't think anyone would read my blog on a Modigliani biopic. I am thrilled and honored that did read it. Thanks so much for the response. I want to see the two Philipe films that you mentioned.


Before Astaire Danced on the Ceiling

 In the late 1980s, I was a veejay and talk show host seen daily on the VH1 music channel. Those were three of the happiest, most fulfilling...