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Artists at Work: Cannes 2017

 The Square

Filmmakers (artists in their own right, of course) seem to find great pleasure in exploring other kinds of artists at work. A number of them showed up in Cannes.

The most talked about of such films is “The Square,” by Ruben Ostlund. Ostlund’s objective here is not so much to talk about art, but to look at how far one will go to keep to the so called social niceties. Danish actor Claes Bang is the head of a museum and there is lots that goes on there, but the action begins when he loses his wallet. He thinks he’s being the liberal, educated one in dealing with the kid he thinks took the wallet, but he sinks into a hole of immoral behavior, publicly accusing an entire working class housing complex of theft.

In the midst of this, he is interviewed by an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) and has a brief fling with her - what does that mean? Also on hand is British actor Dominic West (“The Affair”) as an American artist talking about process. All the while, conceptual art pieces are considered, questioned, and in one case, literally trashed. (Workers, unaware, move the stones of an installation - cleaning it up, as it were.)

The scene of the film that has mesmerized people - and is all that anyone writes about - is a fundraising dinner where the main attraction is a performance artist who rushes the assembled as an ape: he clings, claws and drools on and at guests at the tables. No one wants to step in (impolite, yes? Politically incorrect as well, don’t you think?). For me, the bottom line of the film is - art or no art - how comfortable are we, the privileged, in our skin? And yes, you don’t have to be rich to be privileged.

Noah Baumbach has made a habit of looking into the heads of creative types: the father in “The Squid and the Whale” is a writer; Nicole Kidman’s Margot in “Margot at the Wedding” is also a writer. In “Frances HaGreta Gerwig’s character is searching for something artistic. “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected)” has at its center a sculptor (Dustin Hoffman, the father of this troubled brood) and a musician (Adam Sandler, one of Hoffman’s children) in a film that is not about the art, but about the people who make it, who sell it, who talk about it.

Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz is as egotistical and self-centered as any artist is expected to be, while Sandler’s Danny, Harold’s  musician son, is giving and caring but feels the void of feeling from his father, and some of his step siblings. These emotions are the actual center of the film, as familial relationships are ripped open and exposed. And they are dealt with intellectually until  the only thing that brings everything to a head is a knock-down dragged-out fight between Danny and his financial planner half-brother Matthew (played by Ben Stiller). This may bring the two brothers down to earth, but papa will always be full of just himself. An artist’s plight, perhaps? Baumbach doesn’t say.

I think it’s pretty ballsy of Michel Hazanavicius to attempt to make a film about auteur Jean-Luc Godard. I would say the man has no fear. “Redoubtable” is a fictional account of the French New Wave bad boy at a time when the world was politically changing: That would be 1968. And Godard was changing as well.

Louis Garrel takes on the daunting task of playing Godard. He plays Godard with a certain ease, even as his character goes off on diatribes. Everything Godard says is a pronouncement, but the words come out of Garrel’s mouth effortlessly. To be truthful, I’ll bet Garrel had a blast playing Godard.

While Garrel plays a cerebral character with a certain lightness, Vincent Lindon plays Auguste Rodin with a profound fierceness - but then, he was a sculptor, using his body and muscles to create his masterpieces. “Rodin,” by Jacques Doillon turns out to be a pretty standard biopic, and not of much interest, even considering that we are talking about the creator of “The Thinker.” If not for Lindon’s intensity, there would be no good reason to watch the film. There’s lots of physicality which only boosts Lindon’s Q rating; it doesn’t tell us anything profound about this famous French artist.

It’s interesting to note that filmmakers take on real artistic characters as well as fictional ones. For the most part, it would seem that creating the latter is a walk in the park compared to attempting the real story of an actual artist. Case in point: ‘Rodin.’ But it can be done. Just take a look at Stanley Tucci’s ‘Final Portrait,’ a charming yet pointed look at the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, which was presented at the Berlinale. It has wit and some nicely fleshed out characters to boot.

And so it goes on and on. Good art and bad art. Good films about art and bad films about art. They will continue to exist side by side - perhaps until all the true stories have been told.

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