Poster artFrench director Bruno Dumont works in an elliptical manner. Though he consistently works with powerful visuals, his work requires an audience with an open mind and some patience. His latest, Camille Claudel, 1915, though somewhat based on true events, remains no exception. It stars Juliette Binoche as the titular sculptor turned committed psych patient. As noted by the year in the film’s title, the story focuses on her early years at an asylum in Montdevergues (she would die there, her body interred in a communal grave, in 1943).

She was placed at the psychiatric hospital against her will by her family. Her younger brother, the poet Paul Claudel, co-signed the papers. He was also the only person who would visit her. Often, years would go by between visits.

As Dumont is no ordinary filmmaker, Camille Claudel, 1915 is no ordinary biopic. The drama focuses on only three days. Early in the film, Camille receives word of one of Paul’s visits. She has high hopes he will agree to discharge her. In the meantime, she waits.

Left to languish, she often sits alone when she is not helping the nuns attend to other patients (all are played by actual nuns and real mental patients). She mostly suffers quietly between manic periods of elation at the impending visit and tearful fits of sadness over her abandonment. There are also outbursts of frustration and moments when she finds some reserve to offer care to the other patients. It all speaks to her strength as a powerful woman trapped in the wrong time.


Binoche does far more than emote. The script, credited to Dumont, is mostly based on improvisation after Binoche studied Camille’s letters. She brings intensity to a few standout monologue sequences, which Dumont treats with the utmost respect by not allowing for a single cut to break her performance. He has placed much trust in Binoche, and she delivers. As Paul, Jean-Luc Vincent also delivers, despite his lack of acting experience. Though he plays a seemingly composed, well-put-together man, an impressive question arises from his moments of speechifying. As he reveals an almost zealous devotion to God, one has to wonder who is more insane, the brother or sister?

Dumont never overtly presents this question. After all, his is the language of visuals and sounds, and he packs much baggage into his film through mostly extended scenes that sometimes feature no dialogue. As always, his shots are not only immaculately composed but loaded with meaning. His camera angles are occasionally askew, representing a world misaligned. Camille’s complexity is exposed as much with her actions as reflected by the mentally disabled around her. They stand as living, breathing fun house mirrors. As Mademoiselle Lucas laughs maniacally, her gaping mouth exposes a large hole in her front teeth. Camille stares back with a mix of curiosity and resilient reserve.

As with his other films, Dumont seems fascinated by asymmetrical faces. He even shoots Binoche at an angle that highlights a raised eyebrow and crooked lips, 607a visual appearance hardly emphasized in other films featuring the 49-year-old actress. Dumont allows the camera to sit on many faces, inviting contemplation, despite some uncomfortable scenes that highlight the grotesque appearance of the patients.

One of the film’s more multi-dimensional scenes features Camille sitting in a chair as sunlight bathes her through a curtain. Dumont carefully cuts to the carpet, a wall covered in ornate wallpaper, a fidgety, elderly patient on one side and a stiff, grinning woman on another. All the images feature some variation of sunlight and shadow. It’s an expressionistic scene that is as much about an internal representation as it is a staged moment. What these images and their sequence mean are given to the viewer to consider into the loose plotting of the film.

One cannot also fail to notice the significance of the landscape in the films of Dumont. Camille Claudel, 1915 is no exception. Dumont loves utilizing the wild brush of the landscape, and a day trip out to the top of a dusty hill with the wind blowing through the desolate land implies the artists’s lack. Early in the film, an enormous, dead tree in a courtyard greets Camille when she excuses herself to sit outside. Its gnarly, brittle branches reach toward a heaven that seems non-existent, as we all know there will be no redemption for poor Camille in her lifetime.


As with his previous film, Outside Satan (read my review: Bruno Dumont’s ode to the land ‘Outside Satan’ – a film review), Dumont stages much of his action outdoors. During Paul’s travels to visit his sister, he stops to speak with a priest. They walk among unkempt brush, as Paul speaks about his Catholic enlightenment. Meanwhile, the overwhelming nature crowds them onto a strict path. Dumont is a naturalist who often relies on the magic hour to light his scenes, and it’s clear he adores shooting the outdoors. Indoors, he’s all about symmetry, and when he shows Paul inside a cathedral it marks a breathtakingly beautiful moment. But, just as he loves crooked faces, Dumont seems to prefer the random quality of nature, and he harnesses it to evocative effect with an unparalleled ease.

Claudel’s love affair with Auguste Rodin was well-known, and his work overshadowed hers. References to the affair emerge in the film to heart-breaking effect that only further highlight this poor artist’s abandonment. During a brief therapy session with a doctor where Camille implores for her release, expressing her sense of betrayal by her family and Rodin, the doctor ends it by stating, “Your relationship with Rodin ended 20 years ago. We’ll see you in a week.”

Despite the film’s rather tragic tone, Dumont has intense sympathy for Camille. This is not some emotional torture porn flick, this is a humanist tale fueled by tragic affection for the titular subject. Throughout the film he celebrates Claudel as he suppresses her. She was a kinetic force whose creativity was cut short confined for too many years before a rather pathetic end. Covering only a brief period, Dumont pays intense respect to not only a singular artist but a creative energy squandered to man’s zealous determination to control. Camille Claudel, 1915 stands as a rather beautiful piece of mourning for the loss of creativity.

Hans Morgenstern

Camille Claudel, 1915 runs 95 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is unrated (expect some brief nudity and language). It opens exclusively in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Nov. 8, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

cutie_and_the_boxerThere’s something gorgeous about a documentary on a notable art couple that can transcend not only their celebrity but also their art to offer a profoundly beautiful statement about the complexity of a long-lasting relationship. Cutie and the Boxer, by first-time director Zachary Heinzerling is that documentary. Noriko Shinohara met Ushio Shinohara when she was 20 and he was 40, way back sometime around 1972, after he had settled in New York City. She was an aspiring artist, and he had already achieved a degree of fame that would later merit documenting on film for a network television special in 1979.

Ushio made a name for himself as an aggressive, rowdy artist during an era when such attitudes actually made some in the establishment uncomfortable. He was punk before Malcolm McLaren was out of grammar school. In 1960s Tokyo, with a Mohawk cut, Ushio began painting large canvases by jabbing at them with boxing gloves dripping in paint. Though he never finished art school, he was quite inspired by Dada and co-founded an art group deemed “Neo Dada” (references).


Though he was once a notable figure, those times are now long past. Even though serious New York galleries, including the Guggenheim, show an interest in his work, Ushio can hardly sell his pieces. It’s a mix of the grotesque aspect of his work (he often hears, “I like it but it’s not my taste”), cumbersome product (a 20-foot long motorcycle/dinosaur made of cardboard) and plain laziness to do anything with the finished work. Meanwhile, Noriko continues to paint her cartoonish figures of Cutie and Bully in scenes inspired by her life with Ushio that never achieve exhibition.


Bringing some of Noriko’s paintings to life via minimal animation by Chris Monaco, the film reveals a rather troubling past for this couple. Despite his drunken ways, she falls for him not long after their first meeting. “He will change his ways,” she dreams. Even after they have a child together, he carries on with friends, drinking late into the night and waking up on the kitchen floor. Though at the time the film was shot, Ushio has quit his drinking ways (Noriko says it’s because he became allergic to alcohol in his later days, when he found himself gasping for breath after drinking), their son Alex, an aspiring artist himself, has also taken to drink. He first appears on camera for a heart-breaking moment to shuffle around in the background of his parent’s home to sneak a glass of wine. He guzzles it like water, his mother notes with frustration.

Lest you feel sorry for these people, stick with it, for the film culminates with a mutual exhibit that not only compliments the relationship, but invites a profound revelation. It is part bold, unfiltered film-making by Heinzerling and part self-actualization on the part of the couple. cutie_and_the_boxer_pictureDespite some pretty, sentimental instrumental backing music by Yasuaki Shimizu, Heinzerling does little to romanticize these people. Least of all does he raise these people up as idols to aspire to. His complex portrait comes from a fearless candid quality that remains true to the relationship. He deservedly won the Directing Award at this year’s Sundance film festival (winners list) for a film with a transcendental quality rarely seen from young, first-time filmmakers.

Ushio’s art mattered once and now he cannot seem to find anything else to do but carry on expressing himself with it. At 80 years of age, his partying ways are long past him. He knows little about maintaining a home and pays overdue rent with whatever money he can sell his pieces for, though Noriko chides him to stop short-changing the value of his art.

In some ways these people cannot live without their art, but it’s Noriko who offers the next level of their existence together that should prove life-affirming to those who have ever experienced those precious, unique bumps in the road of a long-term relationship. Tcutie_and_the_boxer4he art becomes a mere prop to tell this story of a couple who have grown old together and cannot be without the other. It’s beyond romance, it’s their lot in life, and they make the best of it. It’s moving to see love break through despite the adversity this couple has been through. That it’s tied to Noriko’s belated success as an artist is a mere bonus. What matters is that such a thing can carry on not so much through compromise but a life-bond acceptance that these two people are so tightly wound together because they have found a place together.

Hans Morgenstern

Cutie and the Boxer runs 82 minutes and is rated R (for nude art images [eye roll], maturing teens will do well to see it). It’s currently opening in limited release across the U.S. (see some screening dates). It opened in South Florida at O Cinema in Miami this past Friday (see other dates). It will later make an appearance in Miami Beach at Miami Beach Cinematheque, starting Friday, Oct. 4.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

museum_hours smallIn the 1958 comedy by Ronald Neame, the Horse’s Mouth, the film’s main character, an artist named Gulley Jimson, portrayed as equal parts guru and buffoon by Alec Guinness, may well be mad or have unlocked the door to artistic brilliance. He tells an acolyte too impatient to spend some time looking at a painting: “Thirty seconds of revelation is worth a million years of know-nothings.”

It makes for an apt commentary more than ever in today’s second-screen mentality when it comes to media consumption. That’s why Jem Cohen’s feature film Museum Hours feels like such a miracle, and the revelations arrive aplenty and effortlessly. He places two rather distinct characters inside the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna. Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a security guard who has lived his life to fuller degrees than most ever will (he was once a disco and punk rock road manager and now enjoys the quiet contemplation the museum job offers him). Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is a Canadian visitor who distracts herself from the weight of concern for a cousin in a coma lying in a hospital bed by visiting the nearby art museum.

The two meet inside Johann’s world of the museum. He is drawn to her for her repeat visits and something more intangible, he admits in an ever-present voice-over. It’s not a sexual attraction, as he is gay, and the actors’ aged, rugged features are so unglamorous and real they subvert any pretense of the superficial sort of romance Hollywood loves to pedal to the masses. With inevitable death hovering over their visits in the form of Anne’s cousin, they trade life stories. Anne worries about “over-sharing” and “prying” while Johann seems happy revealing his past with casual, fulfilled matter-of-factness. A respectful concern and reminder of the cousin constantly appears in their exchanges. And then there’s the art world.

MH_Bobby Sommer1

Cohen does several inspired things with his film that meld art and life like a hand fits a glove. The most noticeable are the conversations on the pieces by the characters. Often, Johann offers his contemplation on the pieces in voice over. Some of it, however, is resigned to the patrons, like the children and teenagers who are not merely judged for their short-attention span but also appreciated for their sincere, visceral reactions to the art, even if it only lasts a few seconds.

Along with extreme close-ups of the art that reveal not only the age of the pieces but also accidental stains and the light reflected off the pieces that highlight texture, Johann also plays games to rediscover pieces he has spent so many hours with, like the dense pieces by Bruegel the Elder. Looking at the many tiny characters that form larger statements on religion, society and the politics of the time from whence these works came he finds a frying pan sticking out of one character’s head, and then he’s off counting all the eggs that appear in the paintings at the museum. On a wider level, he notes the state of the eggs and the context their state means within the stories of the paintings.

Cohen even weaves the bigger presence of life and death with art during a scene where Johann joins Anne at the bedside of her cousin. MH_Mary Margaret O'HaraAnne asks Johann to describe a religious painting to try to get a rise out of her unconscious cousin, who Anne describes as an agnostic. His choice of words melds the real and the divine in a way that remains respectful to the work while also veering away from anything that would have possibly upset anyone who might question a reductive presence of God in this world. It’s an ingenious and subtle moment of transcendentalism.

The director also craftily fills his film with exterior montage sequences of a wintry Vienna that sometimes sneak in a few details of the paintings inside the museum. Birds perched on naked trees flutter away and there’s a cut to a frozen blackbird on a gray branch against an overcast sky inserted in between that is clearly a painting. MH_Cathedral SquareThere are also sequences of landscapes and details of rubbish in the snow. The camera also performs wonders inside the museum with shallow focus on artifacts from Egypt and other long-gone civilizations that appreciate the worn, decaying quality of the work as much as the work itself. Life and art and the fleeting quality of it all, it’s all to be appreciated, the director seems to state.

One of the most amusing elements Cohen employs to meld art and life include some rather candid moments that reveal actors slipping out of character for moments that feel so organic, many may miss these moments, as they subtly break the fourth wall of cinema. In one scene, the film is cut a split second later showing a character turning from serious, almost belabored concentration in her role as an observer of art, and then turning relaxed, as if the director has already called “cut.” It melds beautifully in a film about art taken out of original context in history and placed on display. There are also a couple of moments with Johann where he sounds boisterous or seems more relaxed, behind the walls of the museum, in a locker room and a cafeteria, that may as well have been filmed during downtime from the actual shoot. The layers of art and life exposed as both warm and serious and visceral last for mere seconds but have profound effects that echo throughout this decidedly un-self-conscious film.

Hans Morgenstern

Museum Hours runs 107 minutes, is in German and English with English subtitles and is not rated (any good art film has nudity, though). It opened Friday in the South Florida area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It has already opened in some theaters across the US and others will follow. For a full list of screening dates, visit the film’s official website: here (that’s a hotlink).

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

The Paris-based street artist known as Invader will appear in Miami next week for a major event. He will personally host the world premiere his short documentary “Art4Space” at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach and take questions from the audience. It’s a big deal to the art world and beyond. I first noticed who this incognito artist was, as many did: via Banksy’s subversive Oscar®-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Invader is known for taking graffiti art to another level by plastering on buildings mosaic tiles based on 8-bit, pixellated characters of one of the first video arcade games: “Space Invaders.” The work is often illegal hence the alias and his guarded privacy. He has been in Miami putting up these tiles all over and plans to do more.

But this film, “Art4Space,” is all about returning one of the Invader tiles back to space. Last night I rushed out a piece for my on-going Art Basel Miami-related coverage for the “Miami New Times” blog “Cultist.” You can read all about how Invader actually placed one of his appropriately designed tiles into the stratosphere and how he will perform the in-person Q&A by jumping through the “Cultist” logo below:

The Miami International Film Festival and the Jonathan Levine Gallery, who represents Invader in New York City, are sponsoring the night, which is an invitation-only event. I am on the list and plan to review this 45-minute documentary of how Monsieur Invader did this following video and why:

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I just finished writing a piece about the new documentary on the artist Wayne White,  Beauty is Embarrassing. I spoke to the film’s director Neil Berkeley the other day for the quick piece for the “Miami New Times” art blog “Cultist” (jump through the blog’s logo below to read it).

We spoke for only 10 minutes, but between Berkeley’s film and his very open conversation, I received plenty of insight on his affection for White’s talents and story. Both of us grew up watching White’s work as a puppet designer and puppeteer on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” after all.

Berkeley said, though he had worked with White in production work before, it took him some time to gain the artist’s trust. “It was me always persevering and showing up every day,” Berkeley said over the phone from LA, “showing him this was real and this was going to happen, and I was going to show him I was going to do whatever it takes to make it happen. So I think that showed him that I was going to get it done. But, at first, he just kinda went through the motions. He was pretending to be a subject while I was pretending to be a director.”

But, he says, after showing White some preliminary footage, he won White over. All that work came together in a sprightly documentary that never loses momentum over the course of its less-than-hour-and-half runtime. Jump over to my entire interview with Berkely with further insight into White’s art through the image below:

Hans Morgenstern

Beauty is Embarrassing is not rated (expect colorful language and references to coke-fueled workdays at “Pee-Wee’s”) and runs 87 min. It opens exclusively in South Florida at Miami’s O Cinema, Thursday Oct. 18, at 9 p.m. The film is also available nationwide on Video On Demand and iTunes. 

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Art is at its most vital when it is harnessed to call attention to an injustice … and maybe overthrow an oppressive government. Art has been part of revolutions in the past. Look at the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989. The people would end up electing one of the revolution’s leaders, playwright Václav Havel, as the country’s president. You wouldn’t know it by the popular fluff that passes for art in contemporary America (I personally believe a lot of it is responsible for numbing the masses into passive “sheeple”), but art has an amazing power that still matters to this day. Take the case of Ai Weiwei, a Chinese conceptual artist and documentary filmmaker who would so upset Chinese government officials, he would wind up jailed for 81 days without due process, cut off from even communicating with his family.

Taking her interning experience from working on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Alison Klayman went to China to film Ai at work and at an amazing turning point in his life as an artist. Shot from 2008 – 2010, the film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry points out Ai did not come from the government’s Central Academy of Fine Arts , yet he designed the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium that was the center of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. For an “unofficial” artist in that autocratic regime to have such validity makes for an amazing statement. Before that, his work would even appear in national exhibitions alongside other Chinese artists that were basically the product of a government-controlled education system. When asked by an interviewer for his party affiliation Ai replies, “None. I’m an independent artist,” which probably explains why police not only follow him and record him on video but also intimidate him. The government has even installed 15 surveillance cameras around is home/studio in Beijing.

But, as the film chronicles, Ai has found freedom in his independent way of thinking. It is his thinking that allowed him to see through the twisted control Chinese officials have over their people, a revelation that seemed to come to Ai during his role designing the Bird’s Nest. Residents were ordered to smile at visitors to the Olympics and even forced out of their homes to make way for the games. This did not sit well with Ai and he spoke out. Here is that video:

A fellow artist tells the documentarian: “Weiwei has a hooligan style, like the Chinese government. So he knows how to deal with other hooligans.”

Like a good journalist, Klayman knows to keep out of the way of her subject and never inserts herself in the film, showing this figure the best kind of respect. Klayman also spends little time with talking heads. She presents these years as a kinetic action movie that happens to feature an artist as its hero, and art as his weapon. Her camera simply observes the artist as he assimilates activism into his aesthetic.

Interspersed with her interviews and moments of Ai’s action, whether directing his next project or Tweeting his every move (more for his own protection than promotional reasons), outside Western journalists come in and ask Ai questions. Ai fans from China show up after he Tweets what restaurant he is headed to, and they dine nearby in silent solidarity as police badger him, asking when he will be done eating.

Klayman weaves in footage from Ai’s own documentary works, including one illustrating his efforts to chronicle the identities of victims who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. He joined a team of volunteers seeking to document every fatality in that quake, estimated at 70,000, something the government preferred to keep secret. Of those victims, over 5,000 were children who died in schools built in such a shoddy manner activists use the term “tofu” to describe their construction. Through such horror Ai creates spare but moving pieces of art that are both grand and minimal.

Though Ai seems to taunt the limits of his “rights,” he recognizes the danger of confronting and testing the government. He thinks of it as a means of survival. “I act brave because I know the danger is really there,” he says. “If I don’t act, the danger becomes stronger.” He does speak English, as he spent more than 10 years in New York City, starting in the early eighties. He immersed himself in the art scene and the place definitely seemed to have a positive influence on his creativity. Ironically, the Chinese government was partly responsible for his trip, as it sought to loosen restrictions through cultural exchange programs, allowing Ai to travel and settle in there for a spell.

As much as his “hooligan” style of expression has become a manner of survival for him personally, he also believes nothing will change if he does not do what he does. He understands his role in stirring up some of the Chinese. The film sets this up beautifully at the beginning through a metaphor via Ai’s cats. He says he has 40 running around his studio, yet only one of them knows how to open doors. He says, had he not ever met this cat who can open doors, he wouldn’t know cats could have the power to open them. There is a human drama in the film, too. The birth of a son makes him reevaluate the risks he takes, and when he is finally released from jail, he seems shaken, and you can feel the energy of his creativity has been deflated.

Ai has no delusions of his efforts. He says he believes it will take several generations for China to see a fair change. The key is to keep the voices alive, to never be sorry. At an exhibit at the Tate Modern simply titled “Sunflower Seeds” he had 100 million had-painted porcelain sunflower seeds shipped in and spread across a gallery floor.

To him, he said, each seed represented an individual thought. He steps out to walk on them in front of a camera. The scene unravels from a distance, from another camera that seems to catch the action from the ground, highlighting other sunflower seeds that are not touched, cushioned by distance and the masses of seeds in the same space. It’s a highly conceptual work that brilliantly emphasizes his thinking of the futility of a government that thinks it can control the entire population by crushing the voices of a certain few. The piece could have easily been titled “100 million thoughts,” but that would have been too subversive.

Never Sorry is a strong documentary because Ai is such a strong figure with powerful, resonant ideas and a talent to pull off concepts vibrant with shock waves that wake up the audience. He is the activist who puts the “act” in activism with none of the ego, in effect inciting both those who also want to act and those who fear action. The film’s director clearly understands this and does the best thing she can do by putting her journalist soul to work to record and stay out of the way.

Curious where Ai is now? Check out this news piece by ABC’s “Nightline.

Hans Morgenstern

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is Rated R, runs 91 min. and is in English and Mandarin with English subtitles. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Aug. 17, at many indie theaters. Here they are (the Miami Beach Cinematheque held a preview screening for the purposes of this review):

Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
O Cinema – Miami, FL

Cosford Cinema – Coral Gables, FL
Shadowood 16 – Boca Raton, FL
Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL
Delray Beach 18 – Delray Beach, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year, including screenings in Canada and the UK. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)