‘Portrait of the Artist’ (‘Le Dos Rouge’): Film Review

French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello stars as a director prepping a project about monstrosity in Antoine Barraud’s self-reflexive drama

A deck shuffle of 8 ½, Vertigo, and Frederick Wiseman‘s National Gallery with dashes of Luis Bunuel, Jean Cocteau and David Cronenberg, director Antoine Barraud‘s Portrait of the Artist is an implacably French blend of intellectualism, carnality and oblique storytelling. Unabashedly arthouse in its reach, and for some probably too pretentious to endure, this off-kilter but not entirely uninteresting drama spends a lot of time schlepping round museums as a filmmaker and an art historian (Bertrand Bonello and Jeanne Balibar, respectively, both eminently watchable) discuss pictures, say gnomic things to each other and flirt. Having played already in the Berlinale’s Forum section and at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema showcase, the film opens on Apr. 24 in France.

Although Barraud has some ten films listed in his filmography, apart from the feature-length documentary Daniele Gould, most of them, like Les gouffres, are longish shorts, less than an hour in duration. Perhaps this might account for the 127-minute-long Portrait‘s over-attenuated quality, as if the director hasn’t quite cracked how to use feature length without resorting to repetition. The scenes where Balibar’s Celia, for instance, delivers quirky disquisitions on works by Juan Miro, Gustave Moreau, and Francis Bacon, among others, are interesting in perverse sort of way, but they don’t move what little story the film has along very much. When Balibar disappears inexplicably and the character is take over by Geraldine Pailhas (both a nod to Bunuel and a symptom that Bonello’s character may be losing his mind), the lectures just start to become a drag.

The Bottom Line

A haphazardly assembled and repetitious drama 

When Bonello’s film director Bertrand isn’t with his Janus-faced art advisor, he spends his time drifting about Paris, supposedly in pre-production on a film about a “female monster,” a two-word logline Bertrand’s producer (Pascal Greggory) complains isn’t quite enough to raise finance on. Bertrand’s girlfriend Barbe (Joana Preiss) is performing in a theatrical production we see occasional glimpses of which requires her to wear massive horns. Other characters waft in and out at random – Bertrand’s depressed sister (Valerie Dreville), a space cadet American met in a gallery (Marta Hoskins), a grumpy doctor (Barbet Schroeder) Bertrand sees about the growing red rash on his back, but just to “piss off” his patient the quack insists on looking at his feet instead. Sometimes Bertrand has a jam with Barbe, making up songs based on telephone conversations or vocal riffs; sometimes he hooks up with other women; and sometimes he just sits in a taxi looking soulful.

If there’s anything holding it all together, it’s that theme of monstrousness, albeit very loosely defined. It’s buttressed by scenes where Barbe wears a fake beard, or a journalist who comes to interview Bertrand (Nicolas Maury) is got up in a bra and stockings to recreate a famous Diane Arbus portrait of a man in similar ensemble, an interlude that also recalls Bonello’s own gender-bending film Tiresia. (He also directed the snippets of film we see that are meant to be his character’s movies, although presumably character Bertrand and actor Bonello aren’t meant to be synonymous.)  But it’s as if the filmmakers think it’s too uncool to try to say anything meaningful with these elements, and just keep shaking them all together and pouring back them out, creating a kind of I-Ching approach to narrative.

The caliber of the cast (Charlotte Rampling is even on hand as a narrator) is, however, enough to draw interest and Bonello with his rumpled features and expressive mouth is himself so mesmeric a performer viewers may find themselves wishing he chose to work on this side of the camera more.

Production companies: A House on Fire presentation in co-production with Le Centre Pompidou, Anna Sanders Films, Cosmodigital, Archipel Productions, with the participation of CNC, L’Image Animee, France Televisions, Centre National des Arts Plastiques
Cast:Bertrand Bonello, Jeanne Balibar, Geraldine Pailhas, Joana Preiss, Pascal Greggory, Nicolas Maury, Valerie Dreville, Marta Hoskins, Barbet Schroeder, Charlotte Rampling, Isild Le Besco, Alex Descas
Director/screenwriter: Antoine Barraud
Producers: Cedric Walter, Vincent Wang, Antoine Barraud
Director of photography: Antoine Parouty
Editors: Catherine Libert, Fred Piet
Music: Bertrand Bonello

No rating, 127 minutes